The People v GWS [No 119] (2017)

By Tom Briglia

Round 7, 2017
St Kilda 2.4, 6.7, 10.9, 16.12 (108)
GWS Giants 4.2, 7.6, 11.10, 12.13 (85)
Crowd: 21,160 at Etihad Stadium, Friday, May 5th at 7.50pm

I’ve spent this weekend with a relaxation head-start of 25% [citation needed] owing purely to Friday night. Footy can do that to you; the Saints can do that to you. For this week at least, the road towards a second premiership is starting to take shape.

It’s also the sensation of having a win on the first Friday night game in more than two years. The last time we’d had the weekend to stew over the state of the Saints was in Round 3 of 2015 when Collingwood gave us a 74-point belting in our first official outing in Candy Stripe #2. It was also not-so-memorable for being Paddy’s first game; the club wasn’t able to get the usual PR and fanfare milage out of it because Roo came up sore that evening.

The last time we actually won on a Friday night was against Fremantle in Round 20 of the awful 2011 season as we made a late charge into the finals. We won by 41 points that night after a big last quarter, and Ross the then-boss was just 41 days from being the ex-boss. What does that all mean? Fuck all.

Conventional business hours on Friday morning had KB calling for the Tigers to jump on  Paddy after he kicked seven in the VFL on the Sunday and wasn’t selected. Not sure if KB thought he was “Fitzi” (note the “i” at the end, most probably to make sure everyone knows they’re not talking about Fitzy, but who cares), but Anthony Hudson and Garry Lyon decided to take it up that night on SEN as the lead talking point for the conversation before the game. Hudson said it was “put on the agenda” by KB and Garry ran with it so I guess that’s news now. Rohan Connolly made a passionate mention of Fairfax cutting jobs and the potential loss of journalists, but Garry shut him down, so yeah, that’s where we’re at I guess. The news is apparently made by the media now, not reported by the media.

Fitzi’s revelation (or whatever) of Fyfe coming to St Kilda was much of the rage for too much of the week. Saying it was a St Kilda board member who leaked the info was probably a bit too obvious and an easy giveaway that it wasn’t a St Kilda board member. Of course the club would have spoken to Fyfe, and he might well be on his way to us – you’ll get that from the ITKs on BigFooty – but every club would have spoken to him, or would like to speak to him. The thing that ruined it for Fitzi was him saying that Fyfe’s all but signed for a specific figure. That’s way too easy for Richo, Fyfe’s management, et al. to say that’s technically not true. He might actually be close to done, but unless there’s a Buddy job we won’t know for incredibly certain for a few months.

Even amongst all of the trade talk wankery this still felt like the biggest build up to a St Kilda game for a long time. Last year’s North game late in the season had some talk going into it, but it was more shits and giggles and too much had to go right for us from there (easy to say “too much” in hindsight but that’s what happened) for us to finish in the eight.

I was late to the ground as usual for the agreed meeting time – 7pm with Matt, only to be greeted by him on the bridge to receive an early birthday present. It was a 2006 Candy Stripe #1 clash jumper, one of the Saints jumpers I don’t own from this century. He’d also stumbled on a 2011 Vague Cross jumper a couple of weeks ago which he kindly purchased for me – I am now the proud owner of the worst (2007-2008 Apron) and second-worst clash jumpers in our history.

There weren’t many people wearing Saints colours around the ground at 7pm, nor were there anyone really wearing the faded version of the opposition. Do Saints fans want to turn up for anything? Rubbish crowds so far this year against Melbourne and Geelong were followed by a paltry 21,160 on Friday night. Yes, I’m aware GWS fans are family members, corporates, or AFL ring-ins, but we apparently have more than 39,000 members.

Perhaps the news that we’re keen on returning to New Zealand over the next few years show we’re still lacking in not just members overall, but that they’re not putting their hands into their pockets and taking out a bunch of cash for the Moorabbin fund. Turning up to the games more would help a little too.

Very rarely do I have good feelings about anything but by Wednesday I was feeling good things about this one. I’m not sure exactly why. If you’re pushing for a top eight spot then you probably should take apart a team that’s lost two of their five games by 86 points. Maybe that one felt clinical enough to think we’d smashed through the glass ceiling of large Australian Rules victories.

By Friday I’d calmly brought myself down to earth and was back to expecting something not quite so enthralling as what transpired. Matt and I agreed it was the kind of game where the  the members’ section comes in up and about, some umpiring goes against us, we miss a few easy shots, the opposition’s class has them kick goals out of their proverbial and by the time we’re being run into ground in the last quarter we’re sitting shitty and frustrated by our lives as St Kilda supporters.

Somehow that didn’t happen, which was fortunate for RSEA Safety because their hand-out hard-hats worn by some in the cheer squad would have been frisbeed at the back of Heath Shaw’s skull. Not sure why the St Kilda crowd more generally booed him. As much as I don’t like his on-field personality as an opposition player, I don’t quite categorise him in the same GW$ category as Ward and Scully. At least he won a premiership with his club before chasing dollars. If the Saints fans were upset about the 2010 Grand Final Replay, well…of course we’re all upset, but his side won a premiership and ours didn’t. That’s the long and short of it.

Richie turned to me at half-time and pointed out that we wouldn’t be able to win the game at the pace we were trying to play it at to that point. He was right – another Geelong job was on the cards and we were being cut to ribbons on the rebound too often. The third quarter saw the defenders beginning to settle on the ball a little more and look to move laterally or be more patient for an option to open up. The Giants were able to open up a 17-point lead and in that moment were just a break away from being able to open the game up or put themselves in a position where they could comfortably keep us at arm’s length.

The challenge demarcation was again presented with Smith’s monster on the three-quarter time siren, but at this point in the game things were far more dire. Richo spoke after the Geelong game about how disappointing it was that the second and third tier of players that had failed to step up in that situation. It’s increasingly necessary that the respective development curves of guys like Ross, Billings, Acres, et al. now take in their impact on games when the gauntlet is thrown down. There’s a lot more accountability of what they do within games, beyond just the general upward tick of development we’ve been looking for over the past few years. So it was in the absence of key roles from My Favourite Hair in the AFL and Joey that others would have to take that step if we were any chance of pulling this off.

But to start the third quarter Newnes had fluffed his kick to Bruce one-on-one on the rebound and Scully’s classy finish had the Giants within sight of a win. Our mids were set to get smoked and Matt and I were feeling comfortable about noisily potting Billy Longer’s performance until it slowly dawned on us that he was playing a huge part (literally) in their ability to get some sort of shot at the clearances. By game’s end we would have won that count, and the midfield in general had been given a chance to work their way on top of the masses of talent of the Giants’. Billy had looked cooked about five minutes into the game, barely struggling to make it to contests around the ground in time to nominate himself before someone like Gresham would have been forced to fill in on the spot. There was at least a method or some planning in the Bulldogs playing Dunkley and Lin Jong as the ruckman in the centre bounce; they went out of their way to not have a ruckman lumbering after the play. For a time, this just looked lazy. We took it to another level late in the first quarter after Wilson’s brilliant goal through traffic on the 50-metre arc and only had two players ready to set up at the resulting centre bounce – Longer and Ross. Membrey was the only player who decided to wander in before the umpire put the ball on the deck – still leaving us one short – and ridiculously it was him that won the ball at ground level and fed it out to Seb. But Billy’s shut me and a whole lot other people up for this week, or at least until his ineffectiveness around the ground becomes a serious issue. His physicality at the contest was telling and something we’d lacked – our mids will definitely say they’re happy having that around. Hickey’s injury in the VFL on Saturday might mean there’s not much choice anyway until Rowan Marshall is upgraded.

So, uh, back to the third quarter.  We’d managed to take charge of the pendulum and after some nervous minutes J. Billings did his best to emulate J. Bruce last week, and was bailed out by a trademark Marshall Mather slice shot from three metres out. It was a type of profligacy that isn’t reflected in Billings’ goal scoring tally. Gresham turned up after his one-possession first-half with a snap soon after that looks a lot classier after multiple viewings. His ability to balance himself so quickly, think his way through a situation and execute a play is something we don’t quite have enough of. He would only have 10 possessions by game’s end but they were among our most important. All of a sudden we were back within a goal, for Membrey and Ross to miss back-to-back set shots, split by an equally-inaccurate Heath Shaw kick-in that fell into Seb’s hands. After a cagey few minutes Shiel kicked a Rolls Royce-type goal from a couple of steps on 50 and we might have given it in there.

Sinclair and Gresham combined for Gresham’s second, and then one of the more remarkable but understated passages of play on the night came. It ended with Newnes goaling to draw us level with two and a half minutes left before the last change. From a mark, Tomlinson went down the line on the broadcast side to a large pack forward of the wing. The ball cleared the pack and bounced up. Geary (C) knocked it out of the air to Steele facing the wrong way near the boundary; his quick hands in to Webster were answered with a lightning handball by Jimmy over his right shoulder in traffic to Geary, who immediately turned and gave it off to Joey. Joey’s trademark long, loopy kick was barely met by Acres who had climbed on Davis about several minutes too early for the fall of the ball. “That’s poor” said Bruce reflexively, and everyone in the crowd thought the same thing. Sitting in the members you could feel it was one of those moments in which everyone is in agreement that a particular act deserves a free kick against. The umpire was too, but an unconfirmed Saint’s lack of awareness saved the moment. Watching it back on the replay the umpire is out of frame as Acres goes up, but both Matt and I were watching him as he put his whistle to his mouth – only to have his legs tangled up with the St Kilda player running past. The last frame in which you can see them both before they go out of shot is with 2.47 left on the clock – at a guess it’s Sinclair, and the umpire took a tumble and by the time he’d seen where the play had gone Billings had swooped past and delivered to Minchington, who gave it off the running Newnes for what Dennis Cometti might have once termed the drive-by goal. It wasn’t necessarily match-defining. I think most Saints fans would say we’re due for a piece of good luck like that. Sometimes it’s just your day. Smith’s huge goal on the siren was still to come, and it had the GWS guys up and about and Joey cracking the shits at Riewoldt for not putting pressure enough on the kick.

Three moments in the third quarter had demonstrated the gulf in class between the two teams, and certainly had me thinking we were in for a repeat of the fourth-quarter fade-out against the Cats. It was how they’d kicked three of their goals. There was the classy Scully finish as the Giants went coast-to-coast after a Jack Newnes shank to a mostly open forward line; the Dylan Shiel finesse on the 50 arc, which looked sensational from our seats in line with his angle; and on the clutch Devon Smith moment on the siren. Just like a fortnight ago, we’d needed to work incredibly hard to get what felt like disproportionate reward to the Giants. Their slicing forward that happened earlier in the game had been largely thwarted once the pressure gauge ticked upwards in the second quarter from our end, but these moment showed they didn’t need to be given much at all to punish you. A massive win against the Hawks had our the put queries over our ability run out games on the backburner for a week, but here that challenge loomed again.

The next tier of players that Richo called on to step up did just that. Again, it was the ability to do that in the moment that meant so much for their development, as well as showing a positive response to Richo’s message. That said, we were in touch at three-quarter time without the huge input from Roo and Joey because of guys like Billings, Wright and Sinclair in the front half and Webster who had come prepared for a big night and made an impact from the start.

Billings again starting up forward brought him into the game immediately. He had 1.2 and eight touches at the first break before pushing up higher in the second and third quarters, and I think as much as he has been trying to find some consistency and form over this year perhaps the coaches have equally been looking for the best role for him. Playing off the back half makes sense given the quality of his disposal but it looks like playing a role in the front half gives him more intent. He deserved a third at some point but brought himself undone in the goal square as mentioned, and then missed a snap in space later on to completely ice the game. From whipping boy/seagull earlier the in year, he’s slowly shut people and now got them talking again about him, but for genuinely positive reasons.

Sinclair played a similar but higher role and despite a few early nerves – similar to last week – his disposal improved positioning was really smart. He’d first played that type of high forward role really nicely in the Round 3 win against Collingwood last year and it showed off a quality in his field kicking that we hadn’t seen much given he’d begun his career much closer to goal. His inclusion with Koby Stevens appears to have made an instant and positive impact on the team balance – the midfield has retained its grunt, already heightened with the addition of Steele – but Stevens has so far offered more in terms of disposal than Dunstan and Armo (with an asterisk due to his ongoing injury issues), whilst Sinclair offers footy smarts and better between defence and attack.

Wright had come in for Mav who had a rolled ankle, and yet again didn’t have too much of the ball (12 disposals) but hit the scoreboard with 2.2 and seven tackles. His 25 touches a week earlier for the Zebras show a pretty consistent formline owing to difference in standard. Do you take him out immediately for Mav if no one is injured or dropped (or suspended, i.e. Koby Stevens)? Perhaps Minchington, but he quietly racked up 17 touches, 1.1 and seven tackles himself.

You could mention Gresham here too. One disposal at half-time, three goals by game’s end including the sealer. He was one to have an impact at times of genuine challenge during the game, rather than respond to rev-up or a break between quarters. His first two goals came at critical times in the third term, when it looked like GWS were about to pull clear, and his third goal had him again in perfect position for the fall of the ball and he goaled coolly on his left to finish the Giants off. Hunting around with Sinclair and Billings has the team right now looking a lot sharper.

For all the queries you can throw at his game, Bruce made two particularly important contributions in the final term. He’d had four touches at three-quarter time – not sure if it was the delivery or him but he seemed to impervious to the age-old art of marking, with just one clunk at the final change and two by game’s end. That second came when he at last got some split (*2015 Buzzword*) on his opponent and some Seb Ross class got it to him neatly and he extended the lead that Acres had created. Gresham’s third goal owed a lot to him as well – Stevens and Ross combined in the middle and Membrey had to go up against both Davis and Tomlinson and was good enough to split the contest and bring the ball to ground. Bruce busted in and held off Taranto who was close to the fall and guarded Gresham from Tomlinson to make sure had more time and space to finish.

To take the chain of Gresham’s third back further: the heightened pressure level in the final term had the Giants scrambling for territory with rushed disposal in a similar way that we managed to force Collingwood into a few weeks ago. Scully found the ball on the wing and with his left went searching for Patton, who was with Carlisle. That might have presented a problem if Patton managed to at least cause a real contest, and the ball had bounced in his favour. But Jimmy Webster had worked well clear of his opponent and glided past to kick across to Newnes, who went to Stevens. Webster himself, like Billings, had a few hiccups at the start of the year, but has now become a key part of the defence. The acquisition of Carlisle and Brown can’t be underestimated not just in their isolated worth – Cameron and Patton managed just three goals between them – but their presence has released Webster and Roberton to play in and improve their more natural roles. Webster was a part of the Jack Steven snap goal chain as well, with a bullet to key talking point guy of the week Blake Acres.

He’s threatened to really bust a game open this year and again, Blacres really took his opponents on when he could and jetted into space. He has a habit of being caught by his jumper but still rocketing himself out of the opponent’s grasp, even when being slung around a little. When Richo specifically mentioned “fourth- and fifth-year players” in the post-match press conference of the Geelong game that we was disappointed didn’t take the next step when the game demanded it, I think most Saints fans would have had Acres in mind. He has shown his versatility and X-factor in patches and whilst this wasn’t a massive four-quarter performance, it was a massive final quarter performance against arguably the most talented team in the competition. He kicked two goals in as many minutes early in the final term playing as a forward target, to take us from nine points down to the lead. (Worth mentioning here that Sinclair was the one who delivered expertly to him for the second goal). Acres followed that up with a party tricks fast handball over the right shoulder to Geary running out of defence – I’ve said it before but he’s shaping as an old-fashioned and/or very modern utility player.

I’ve glossed over or completely neglected the huge games from Seb Ross, Jack Steven and the midfield in general, but (I’m still surprised I’m saying this) we’re getting used to those. The depth is growing; the output of the guys that have been there for a few years like Ross and Steven continues to lift, as well as being boosted by recruits Steele and Stevens and younger guys running through. As I said, this game showed a difference in class but you can’t fake the kind of attitude and hard work it took to get the job done across the 22 on Friday night.

The game had a lot of those moments where in that particular second you think this whole thing is going somewhere. Geary’s huge tackle on Patton was an early warning of the intent. But then in huge moments there was Gresham’s goals, Acres’ hands after his own pair, Seb Ross’s delivery to Bruce, Carlisle’s spoil in front of the members between Devon Smith and Heath Shaw, Steele and Minchington shutting down a GWS rebound attempt in final couple of minutes. Even in isolation they can represent so much.

Last year I remember thinking (and writing) that the second half of the season was set for all sorts of novelties associated with a rebuilding team. An 88-point loss to the Crows had us 4-7, and we’d lost Hugh Goddard for the season. It was the first weekend of June and it seemed to have promised a long, cold winter full of Jackson Ferguson, Will Johnson and Nick Winmar-type appearances from bottom-of-the-depths players. We backed it up with what remained to the end of the season amongst the two most enjoyable matches – knocking off the in-form Blues in front of a sold-out Docklands on a beautiful Sunday afternoon on the long weekend, and then the three-point win over the top-of-the-table Cats.  Richo spoke after the game of the importance that this doesn’t become “an event”. Whilst those last wins set off an incredible second half of the season overall that saw us miss out on the finals on percentage only, they were immediately followed by a loss to the Gold Coast who had lost their last 10. Another challenge to the maturity of this group comes on Saturday in the form of Carlton, who loom as both potential easybeats and potential threats.

In hindsight this game is mostly about what happened in the second half and/or last quarter. It’s about a whole lot of younger guys that we’ve been banking a redevelopment on taking what might be a landmark step. For the next week it is, anyway, until Saturday’s game makes its own impact on the ongoing narrative. This is just part of the journey, but a good part. On the siren of our Round 7 win over Carlton in 2013, I took notice of the reactions of Ross and Newnes particularly. “These are the kinds of wins that not only gets us as supporters attached to the players, but those players really attached to the club”, I said in the review. In the four years since we sacked our coach, sunk further down the ladder – the furthest you can go – and after Round 7 of 2017 I’m saying the same thing. The difference here is that guys like Ross, Newnes, Acres, Billings, Carlisle, Webster and Gresham – some who weren’t even at the club for that win four years ago (indeed, that was Webster’s first game) – those players owned this one. As supporters we find ourselves more and more looking to these guys to step up when things get tough.

It wasn’t until watching the replay, after Jack Steven booted home the icing on the cake from the goal square, that I learned something interesting from Bruce (not for the first time): in the previous 98 rounds, we’d only been in the top eight at the completion of a round three times, and never beyond Round 2. That’s now four rounds out of the last 99. The rebuild hasn’t truly worked until we’ve won a premiership, and after everything that happened across the last generation (and, realistically, the several before that) as St Kilda fans we’re wary for next week, let alone the years to come. But this win felt different. That sense of purpose and a sense of direction is back. There are some times in which you feel that, quite simply, it’s time.

  • Harry

    Well said Tom. Encouraging to read that Billy L has improved his standing in your eyes and in Richie’s also I hope, Rooey looked sore and proppy in the second half in particular, so I hope that he takes a week off if needed.

    We all feel very encouraged by the win, but now worry that we cannot follow up against Carlton. Onward Saints.