We’ll let you know

By Tom Briglia

Round 5, 2017
St Kilda 4.1, 8.5, 12.7, 13.10 (88)
Geelong Cats 6.1, 8.3, 11.8, 19.12 (126)
Crowd: 33,884 at Etihad Stadium, Sunday, April 23rd at 3.20pm

The St Kilda website ran the video feature “Love the moment: R14 2009 vs Geelong” as part of the week’s lead-in to the game.

I don’t know how people can watch this without an overwhelming sense of sadness, or why the club would put this up (intentions of the campaign aside). Yes, I understand it was a great moment but post-Grand Final Day 2009 the memory has been shat on. It’s just a reminder of how good this team was and how in typical St Kilda fashion it failed to deliver a premiership. Posting it felt a little symptomatic of a club enamoured with individual moments, individual players, and indeed, individual premierships won by individual points.

The kicking for goal against the Cats in that Grand Final cost this club the best chance to heavily reinvent itself. Given our issues in front of goal this year, posting highlights from that match as part of the build-up was probably tempting fate. But given this club’s history, you could mention almost anything and there’s a chance the club has done something wrong related to it in some way.

Since that day, Geelong has remained competitive and become an entirely different club on and off the field. They won three premierships in that era and have remained a flag threat since, barring 2015. We kicked one away one and couldn’t snatch another (not to mentioned a few failed Preliminary Finals) and we still had to literally bottom out and work our way back up. Until we do get back up, we can’t say we actually did get back up.

The spectre of that era and that Grand Final still looms large for St Kilda fans, but for Geelong fans it gave way to bigger and better rivalries; rivalries that were more relevant to clubs that win premierships and create genuine success. As we tumbled down the ladder their victories against the Saints grew in size, and that gap narrowed as we trekked further on our development path. They are truly a club that has a hold on us, symbolically and on the field. It feels as though we need to do a whole lot more than any other day to beat the Cats. Again on Sunday it proved too much.

Selection this week was headlined by the inclusion of Billy Longer for Tom Hickey, who was officially “managed”, even though Richo went on to say he would have been dropped anyway. Billy appeared to have trained his way to front of the growing ruck queue by the start of the pre-season but Trickey played his way back against the Swans in the JLT. A pantsing by Max was followed with a huge effort against the Eagles and some big tackles against the Lions, but Martin and Grundy gave more head-to-head. I think of Billy as a Lazar Vidovic reincarnate – bash and crash-type who’s there to be an enforcer rather than Hickey’s relative agility for his size – but as Rich said after the game, Billy’s gonna need to be both officially managed and officially dropped after this.

On paper he got 29 hit-outs but Jesus Christ you wouldn’t have known he was out there otherwise. One kick, seven handballs and five tackles of which zero had the force of several of Hickey’s. He just looks…slow? It was his first game for 600-plus days so you can cut him some slack, sure, but would you keep him in the team for next week? Richo’s response is the post-match presser to what he thought of Longer’s game featured a lot of pauses and half-arsed phrases about physicality and contest, i.e. “he was a large human wearing a St Kilda jumper turned up on time”.

Surely Rowan Marshall has pushed himself ahead into second place in the ruck queue behind Trickey? He and Holmes were taking photos with fans outside the ground before the bounce and Lewis Pierce was being interviewed by Tom Morris in the whatever bar it is on Level 2 at half-time. Trickey had the ignominy of finding himself on the big screen at the main break flogging some bottled water. That was probably the flattest known collective of four ruckmen by day’s end.

Before Sunday, it looked like Marshall was a sneaky chance to bound in front of all comers anyway with a few more sausages for Sandy. He’d kicked 12 goals across the practice games and followed up two goals in Round 1 with another pair on Saturday. He might even be a threat to Paddy at the minute, although Paddy kicked 3.1 and collected 10 marks and 19 possessions. Marshall kicked 2.2 and 18 touches and took eight marks.

What’s published on the club website has often been a good guide to future selection moves and Paddy’s leading this week’s VFL wrap. It also has Lindsay Gilbee saying, “We really liked the way Paddy and Marshall played together. Rowan kicked a couple of goals and worked hard for his eight marks, and we may be getting a glimpse of our future in attack there from a St Kilda point of view.” Can we call it in?

Are we at the point where dropping Josh Bruce isn’t totally outrageous yet? A missed shot from outside 50 on his own, a missed set-shot from close-range for 1.2 to go with all of 11 possessions, three marks, and three tackles. Yes, he’s in the team for reasons you can’t boil down to easy numbers like those but is he only in the team at the moment because of his height? Or is the fact that he’s unable to get a rest in lieu of second ruck duties taking away from his ability to work around the forward half of the ground?

To be fair, whilst it wasn’t as bad as other weeks but he still isn’t getting the best quality supply from further up. Of all people it was Joey who was running forward with the ball on his own at a key stage in the last quarter and simply decided to send down a loopy Joey special on top of Bruce and two other Cats; if he’d held onto the ball for a second or two longer and given Bruce a chance to work himself into a better position. What hope has Bruce got there otherwise? And would bringing in Paddy or Rowan Marshall for him make a difference if the slightly-better delivery remained the same next week? Something was obviously up when Carlisle went forward though.

He and Brown looked really competitive down back again but had their work cut out for them when the Cats’ mids ran rampant in the last. There’s only so much you can do about precise entries forward and Dangerfield kicking goals over your head from outside 50 on his wrong foot.

Strangely enough, early in the last quarter we were the more accurate of the two teams, with the scoreline reading 12.7 to 11.9. That gap between 60 metres out from goal and 10 metres just looked to have been bridged a little. Billings found the ball in third quarter as well really looked to make a move, and waited patiently and lowered his eyes rather than blazing away to the goalsquare or to an outnumbered forward and delivered beautifully to Bruce, who had been given a second to find a space to lead into. Both Acres and Newnes threw in some curve balls for the Cats’ defenders and scored goals from passaged in which they played as lead-up forwards. Seb Ross missed from a similar spot to Josh Bruce in the last quarter, just outside 50 on the run, but throw in his fantastic early goal from a similar situation at the other end and now there are players finding space around the 50-metre arc. Jack Steven and Dunstan opened the third quarter with great long-range goals after Stuv has almost created something similar in the second. He didn’t even give himself the chance to miss the shot when communications went haywire and he got mowed down.

With My Favourite Hair in the AFL having his first really tempered influence for the year and neither Bruce nor Membrey having huge contributions, it was going to be the smaller forwards and others who had to take responsibility for hitting the scoreboard. Minchington nailed a very specific triple-triple, with his third three-goal effort against the Cats from three games against them. He was the only player on the ground to kick three and he showed a whole lote more composure around goal than most this season. The third goal particularly was a good example of what a player who kick four goals and gets 28 possessions at VFL level can do; taking the ball tight in the pocket and knowing exactly where to run from a standing start to give himself the most time and space for a kick around the corner.

Gresham had a bad day. His dropped mark on the 50-metre arc in the last quarter turned into a Geelong goal, he slipped over with the footy on the wing in front of the members, his ridiculous attempt at a huge mark didn’t affect anything in the vicinity cost Ben Long his first goal in footy. His solo attempt at goal from deep in the pocket would have been spectacular if he nailed, but when it bounced wide he was rightly given a spray by Membrey who was calling for the footy by himself 15 metres in front. It seemed like he was trying a little too hard to keep up with the pace of the game, or perhaps he was trying to fill the gap left by Lonie’s omission.

The difference here is you can forgive that. Gresh earned himself a bad day – it’s part of any inexperienced player’s development, but from the start he’s shown enough composure (that word matters) and class (likewise) often to suggest not just that he will be a very good player for us, but the type of player we’re particularly lacking in. We can let this one slide.

Ben Long will probably get dropped for Sinclair but as any of the coaches or recruiters would say, he’s here for a career, not just this season. He’ll be better for the run at this level and has shown he can match it each time he goes up in grade. Sinclair surely has earned a recall – Sandy’s stats will tell you he had 35 touches and a goal and he’s been tracking at so far above VFL level for too long now to not a game. Richo said in the Coach’s Message video, “Sinclair’s had another strong game and I think that he’ll certainly push hard for selection this week.” I think you can lock him in for Tassie.

Gilbert’s best contribution was cruelly annulled by one of the many awful umpiring calls. I’ll make a quick deviation to make a point – yes, whilst Selwood got a free for being pushed by his own player maybe next time Josh Bruce should actually make the most of the small good fortune of receiving a bizarre free kick close to goal and kick straight. Gilbert bulleted a pass to the hampered My Favourite Hair in the AFL on a lead in what was probably our last decent chance to get ourselves back in the game, but the advantage call was pathetically not given…I don’t know what the fuck happened; given there was no stop in play the umpire I am entirely unsure why the umpire brought the ball back. If it’s a late hit then it’s downfield. But of you’re a good enough side then the player with the ball now has the chance to size up a bunch of options, and the forwards have a chance to provide something at the time when they need to the most. Gilbert’s kick went straight to a Geelong defender.

Geelong simply had far too much class, composure and run, and again hammered an opponent into the ground in a final quarter. Selwood’s intercept mark and give-off to Guthrie for a running goal in the final 12 seconds was a fitting finish. There was simply no answer for him – collectively we lacked the speed and grunt that their midfield brought when it counted, and they were far more polished with the ball and worked to space more efficiently around the ground. If we were to win it would have taken us working at more than capacity, and that would have brought no guarantees.

I didn’t mind Gresham being thrown into the middle in the last quarter. He was probably down a little on himself for the aforementioned reasons and he got chance to reset his focus as well as see up close what a true matchwinner looks like when the heat’s on. Almost bemusingly, perhaps, Glibert was in there too. I understand the need to have put a fresher, bigger body in at that point because we looked cooked right across the ground and Ross and Steven were being saved at certain points. I don’t question Gilbert’s intent for a second but the free he gave away for holding the man from a centre bounce was very clumsy; as if he just couldn’t react quick enough for the pace of the game. Again, he managed to put down a couple of marks as he did last week, or simply not impact an aerial contest in the way you would want him to. I’d suspect he’s close to a game for the Zebras, both on form and the logistics of playing youth, whether it’s to bring in a tall forward or someone like D-Mac (26 touches), Brandon White (26 – 22 kicks, five inside 50s and seven rebound 50s) who returned handsome numbers for Sandy on Saturday, and some positive reviews (Bailey Rice included) from the people good enough to take time and do some write-ups on BigFooty forums everywhere. The profile of Shane Savage I feel like has fallen off the face of the planet in less than a week, but 27 touches and six rebounds from defensive 50 shows he’s obviously got enough talent to be dropped to the VFL and immediately know what’s what.

Dunstan followed up his 11-possession game last week with…12 possessions and two tackles. If he hadn’t of kicked that goal then I don’t know what. He may get another chance though because Koby Stevens got a heavy knock after being very busy for the Zebs – he’d had 11 touches and seven tackles in about half a game.

Right now though I feel like he’s just not having the influence he should. Richo mentioned in the Coach’s Message that fourth and fifth-year players need to be having a “stronger impact on the game when it is things are slipping”. That seemed particularly aimed at Dunstan, Acres and Billings. I feel like right now there’s a bit of an analogue between Lonie versus Minchington, and Dunstan versus what we assume Koby Stevens would bring to the team – that is, the defensive and pressure acts side of things, but the latter bringing in some more actual football. Mav Weller

Armo might well be done. As much as he clearly gives when he’s out there this is the unfortunate circumstance of a player’s body letting them down. A few of his troubles have come from knocks and collisions (e.g. the knee slice against Paddy Dangerfield of the Adelaide Crows early in 2014), but his form was clearly affected for most of last year. Steele, Dunstan and perhaps Stevens have a chance to really contribute to this team.

Stuv looked like a really good player who’d missed a couple of weeks and was being thrown back in against one of the most potent midfield combinations in the game. He racked up good numbers and the addition of his pace was noticeable enough that Freeman looms as an ace up our sleeve if he works out. Perhaps surprisingly Richo said he wouldn’t expect to see him in the senior side before the second half of the year, but I don’t think any of us were expecting to see him ever? Luke Penny and Aaron Hamill never quite got back as their injuries piled on; Markworth was always coming back from a freak knock directly to his ACL; Jesse Smith was already injured when recruited alongside Andrew Lovett to add class to defensive aggression for the 2010 campaign. We’re used to this thing not quite working out.

Seb Ross played probably the best footy of his career as his odds to be the 2018-2022 Premiership Captain shortened. For one of the first times he also displayed a little bit of pace, and on a day in which he collected 33 touches there were some far more damaging disposals in there, and in much more dangerous parts of the ground. Some pinpoint field kicks to go with shots at goal that a) easily covered the distance from outside 50 and b) he wouldn’t have backed himself to kick two years ago. Not to mention the Sam Mitchell-esque pause and perfectly weighted kick to Dunstan for Luke’s goal. I don’t think many saw this development coming from Seb before last year, and it’s players like him that really need to take these steps is we’re going to be successful in the coming years. Right now he’s done that and more, and is looking good to be this club’s next captain.

Steele again was a handy complement as someone who can play inside and out and be smart with the ball both ways, but needs to get more of the ball. The asterisk to that is that it was only his 22nd game and is looking like a great pick-up. Good hair, too. Speaking of arbitrary asterisks, Pick #3 in the 2013 National Draft was Jack Billings. I feel like he’s still just got a faint asterisk next to his name, because before this season he’d only played 42 games and hadn’t really had a decent run at a pre-season, let alone a decent run at a proper season, with some pretty difficult injuries really hampering his ability to get some momentum through seasons. That’s not just playing several weeks of footy in a row, it’s about playing a few months of footy without missing a game. He got close to that in his first season but even then finished early, and missed large chunks of the last two seasons. His two back-to-back goal assists reminded us of why he was picked so high, and as far as my silly internet opinion goes why he should be played in the front half more often. I’ve mentioned both – the perfect pass to Bruce after some actual consideration, and the nicely weighted handball to Minchington in the pocket, who did it justice with the finish. He doesn’t need to get 30 touches a game and for all of them to be like that, but he needs to do those things more often before we can even speak of him as vaguely worth pick #3 ahead of the Bont. I think I might have been a bit harsher on Dunstan, who is only 11 games ahead of him in the same period, but that’s by the by – both need to start lifting their output.

McKenzie, Rice and White all were named in Sandy’s best, but where do they all fit in? Maybe it’s Gilbert that comes out. The past week was Dylan Roberton week, named for the player who is somehow now actually convincing us he’s a genuinely good footballer, has a genuinely good football brain and belongs in the leadership group, and he put in another strong performance. Webster continued his improvement, despite his expert bullet pass to a Nakia Cockatoo at the top of their goal square in the first quarter. He’s tough and his disposal is (usually) pretty good. We need more of that.

Geary (C) was the last one standing, let alone running for us in this one. A desperate spoil and follow-up in an attempt to get some semblance of run off half-back in the last minutes, together with bandaged head, had him above all others at the point. To paraphrase Van Jones, who was possibly doped-up at the time of his original comment, “He became captain of the St Kilda Football Club in that moment”.

Despite the loss it was the type of game you’d leave having felt as though you’d watched a tough, entertaining contest that saw the best players and the best team perform well and rewarded. It was probably some of the best footy the Saints had played in terms of going head-to-head with a genuinely good team for the production of an uncompromising game of footy. We also got a lesson on where we’re at right now. Geelong has a habit of doing that.

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

    Found it interesting that you saved your biggest whack for Josh Bruce, despite most deducing that the midfield was where we lost the game in the last term.

    What frustrated me about this game was that, if we had brought that sort of ball movement in the first two rounds, then we may have had a couple of more Ws on the board.

    Richo also needs to be questioned. Versus Collingwood, we made a concerted effort to take the pace out of the game at times and control possession. Curious that we didn’t use that tactic on Sunday, knowing full well how strong the Cats have performed in the fourth quarter so far this year.

    I think most keen saints fans would have already known that our midfield is definitely our weakness. As handy as Jack Steele has been so far, there’s still a big drop off between Jack Steven and Seb Ross and the rest of our midfielders.

  • Harry

    Very comprehensive review Tom. Agree with most of your comments and the game showed quite clearly that the Saints have a group of players, most of whom you have named, that need to lift and take the next step up and also become more consistent. I hope that as the year goes by we will witness the break out of the real Jack Billings. I know that the scribes at RWB are not big Billy Longer fans, but I felt that he was competitive in the ruck duels and it was partly his tiring in the last quarter, after such a long lay-off, that allowed the Geelong midfield to get to top.