And then there was one

By Tom Briglia

Round 22
St Kilda 4.3, 8.14, 14.17, 18.19 (127)
North Melbourne 5.2, 6.3, 8.5, 12.6 (78)
Crowd: 29,126 at Etihad Stadium, Sunday, August 20th at 3.20pm

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It’s hard to write much about the game itself. It was probably the most accurate encapsulation of a rather odd season in one game – plenty of missed chances at goal, fluffed opportunities from the goal square, a demonstration of the gap between ourselves and the lower teams, a lot of Seb Ross and Jack Steven, some Hotline and Gresham, the looming presence of My Favourite Hair in the AFL and his future, not much Mav Weller, absolutely no David Armitage.

There was also eight marks taken and two goals kicked by said My Favourite Hair. After almost a full season of chatter about whether or not he’d play on in 2018, a few weeks ago we officially got our answer. Sunday was the kind of day that seemed unfathomable for so long, and for how sad his lap of honour in front of a St Kilda home crowd was, this Sunday afternoon will be very difficult.

All of a sudden this has become more real. Given the ridiculous moments and lapses that underpinned the Port Adelaide and Melbourne matches in recent weeks we now have an almost certain end date. This was a dry run for Sunday, but even then there plenty of tears around the stadium after the match.

It was a borderline dead rubber and realistically was played in that manner. Plenty of open play, a lack of real urgency that you can sense when a season is still to be played for, and some comical errors. The Acres to Sinclair to Dunstan slapstick was the headline act; the Gilbert banana goal overturned for a throw to him, and then Gresham’s sneaky pounce goal from the resulting North free kick was a close second.

The lack of urgency was something you could sense from the start. North’s win-loss record belies how competitive they’ve been this year and after the disappointment of the previous week I wasn’t going to be surprised if we were a little flat and caught off our guard. If Brown hadn’t have hit the post they would have had six goals for the opening term, including two goals in last 26 seconds.

The match day entertainment again fell a little flat on quarter time owing again to some, uh, Jake Carlisle-based issues after all the faux-drama of his pre-match. The club obviously doesn’t and shouldn’t take into account scuffles on flowing beyond the siren of any quarter, but for the second time this year Emma Davenport has been put into the position that she has to bring a family friendly and/or feel-good segment to the crowd on the big-screen when everyone’s wound up (or whatever the equivalent was for Sunday) and absolutely not in the headspace. It happened on three-quarter time of the infamous Blues match earlier this year when she had to bring us “Saints in the Seats” after Murphy had a crack at Jake Carlisle who was lying on the ground after being smacked in the nuts, following everything else that had been yelled about between players during the game. The mood was heated, Carlton had frustrated the Saints (except for Hotline) all day, and I ended up screaming at him that he was a “fucking dog” and “weak prick” immediately afterwards (with a small child directly in front of our membership seats), and sending out an ill-informed tweet that I deleted later. Carlisle was involved this time too, but much more actively in that moment. He managed to get reported twice after almost not making it out there. His back seized up in the pre, pre-match warm-up and it looked like Brandon White was going to come in (he shouldn’t have come out in the first place, really). But the big screen cut to the rooms just minutes before they ran out and he was doing whatever handball drill they were doing, and then bizarrely he ran out by himself – again, wonderfully, in the long-sleeves – for a quick kick-to-kick with a trainer before running back in, and then running back out with everyone else. He was still reaching for his back as the team came out from the banner and was clearly in no shape to do the bullshit mini-sprint drill. Whilst whatever jab he’d probably received eventually kicked in, he wasn’t able to take Brown, so Brown was on Brown, and Brown would have had a much dirtier day if Brown had kicked straight, because Brown just couldn’t keep up with him on the lead nor compete with Brown in the air. For as long as North were taking it up to our mids, Brown was looming as a key player and it was looking like the Coleman Medal might have “Brown” etched on it soon. Brown had to stay on Brown for the entire match. That’s about how many times I heard that line used during the game from someone in the crowd, to go with the constant high decibels emitted from the mouthy kids that sit directly behind my eardrums.

Billings and Gresham’s polished finishes in the opening term at the Riewoldt end be damned, we were going to send Roo off from the stadium the best way this team knows how – by missing goal after goal after goal. The aforementioned Blacres/Sinclair/Dunstan job was obviously the highlight, which shows just how bad it was given it was competing for a spot amongst the plethora of entries in a season-reflecting, season-beating 4.11 for the quarter. That included 15 consecutive forward-50 entries for the return of 3.11, and keep in mind Sav kicked a goal from a set shot after the siren.

Josh Bruce kicked things off of course; Jack Steven ensured he still incredibly has not kicked a goal from a set shot this season, Dunstan missed a set shot, Billings missed a snap around the corner from deep in the pocket, Blacres and Seb missed too.

Jack Steven picked up 40 touches but in a year that he obviously struggled for attention I think we’re mostly over what his ceiling is. His kicking can be haphazard and he’s kicked 6.15 this year. He’s obviously not the only one afflicted with the team-wide illness and perhaps that’s something that might be contained to 2017, but that’s still what he’s bringing to the team right now. A particularly soft effort in front of the members in the last quarter had me rushing to “Nick Riewoldt would never do that” thoughts, but with the improvement of Seb Ross, the form of Luke Dunstan in the five games since returning to the team and the development left in Jack Steele and Blacres it’s the depth and to a certain point the versatility that those on the list currently will bring. Armo may or may not exist anymore, Gresham and Billings are better suited to the “high half-forward” roles, Sinclair and Newnes are different types of wings, Koby Stevens has probably shown his best (not such a bad thing) and Freeman may not even get out there. The list is still incomplete, which is right now is an exciting thing.

The real X-factor in that list is Blacres, who brings speed, acceleration and size in a way the others don’t to what still looks like a blue-collar side. He’s one of the few guys in the team that are willing, let alone able, to break through traffic and create new angles on the line of play, as well as releasing and bringing other teammates into the game and affecting movement in the process. His disposal still needs work and he still comes across as an airhead at times, but I still think his progression and style is a this-decade version of BJ. He’s also got the size to go into attack and play as a lead-up forward, and his set shot kicking is much better than most – his goal from the pocket was very, very nice. Maybe the calamity that was the Port finish is slowly fading (maybe), and Blacres played arguably the key role in that. So when he kicks into the man on the mark just outside the 50 metre arc late in the game and then runs over and pushes the guy over, gets the ball and gives it off to a player running past (Sav) for a goal, that shows development and certainly makes us a feel a little better (for the moment).

Blue-collar tag perhaps, but as Billings, Gresham, Sinclair and Acres all become more prominent those small spikes of class are showing through. Billings’ and Gresham’s goals were a tease for what this year could have brought more often but also for the wait over the off-season ahead, and does anyone dare say that Sinclair’s finesse in dancing around his opponent and kicking that third quarter goal was…Harvey-esque? It’s much easier to bring in the comparison given he’s wearing 35, but even his hair is getting gradually suspiciously bigger as he gets better.

One thing that might have popped out of Richo’s post-match press conference was how unequivocal Richo was about Gilbert playing next year. Brandon White was dropped which was strange, but who else do you take out when you’ve gotta play Nick? He’s obviously not in danger or losing a place on the list or anything, and he’s one of the most promising guys we’ve drafted over the past decade going on their first handful of games. But next year will be different, and if surely we couldn’t play both Joey and Gilbert the entire year, although that’s more of a Joey conversation than Gilbert conversation. Gilbert has shown more intent than many of his teammates throughout the year, and no one would deny him that. If anything his game has actually improved, but is that at the cost (potentially) of developing White and D-Mac and Rice? Will there be enough improvement from the younger guys across the rest of the team that would justify playing a guy who’s turning 32 (albeit towards the end of the season – he just turned 31 last week) in the side?

That only 29,000 turned up is a blight on the wider St Kilda fanbase. I found it strange Richo and Jack Steven (i.e. the club) went out of their way to point out what a great turnout it was. The club has more than 42,000 members, and it was almost embarrassing when the crowd number went up on the screen. Not just that the number itself was low, but because looking around the ground fuck me if there was actually anywhere near 29,000 there. What else does it take to get Saints fans to turn up? It’s a beautiful day and the Corporate Dome still has a closed roof for our “comfort” (i.e. enhancement of match day garbage), but since that long ago time in which we were a competitive side, we’ve gone from not turning up at the open MCG under any circumstances to not turning up to an historical home match with all components of a TV studio.

Conversely, I’ve really started challenging what I expect and should want to get from this football club for a host of reasons. Its incompetence has an almost unblemished record of more than 14 decades to point to as a get-out clause for fans, who most recently got to see the club piss away more than a decade despite having the biggest non-AFL gifted armoury of top draft picks. But this is the legacy of this particular one individual that the club – which has had to celebrate individuals in lieu of its own success – will need build on if it wants find the promised land. Turn up.

The sadness of the moment post-match probably caught a lot of people off-guard. Yes, this had definitely become a real thing. It was hard to not tear up (if you hadn’t already) as Roo ran the final lap in front of the home fans. The future might be a very uncertain place without him, and for as long as he was around there was a link to the teams of 2004-05 and those that came so close to a premiership. For as long as he was around those heights seemed maybe not so far away. Once he’s gone we’re going to be looking to a lot of difference faces and a lot of different people. There might be an element of fear in that for supporters. I certainly feel it. I certainly shed a few tears as I crossed the Bourke Street bridge and headed for the tram. This is an event for St Kilda, and for St Kilda supporters.

Barring the kind of miracle in the final round of 2008 that gave us a slim chance of a premiership for Sir Robert (of course it didn’t eventuate), this Sunday will be the last time Saint Nick runs out in a St Kilda jumper. Embrace it, enjoy it, appreciate it.

  • Campbell

    It was nice to see him jag a couple. I felt that there were a few more than 29,000 there at the game. However, I hadn’t factored in how few Norf fans would show. The lack of atmosphere during the game made for a hollow experience in my opinion. It probably sharpened my focus on the fact that it’d be the last time I’d get to see an ever-present from my youth grace the field.
    There’s been so much adulation for Nick in the past few weeks. He genuinely deserves it all. He’s a bridge to the likes of Loewe, Harvey, Burke, Thompson etc. The guys who filled the screens when the saints first started ripping my heart out. But more than being a bridge, he’s a saint, a real saint, he rejected the overtures of the AFL (suns) and Eddie to stay and be a one club player and maybe have one last shot at the elusive. It’s sadly fitting that our club was incapable of giving him the chance to run out in September. We wouldn’t have it any other way. We couldn’t spring a surprise for one of the greatest saints to pull on cursed strip. Nobody deserved one last crack at the finals more than Nick; for every thing he’s done for us. Footy won’t feel the same without him for a while. I hope that Mattress Guts and co. have savored every moment with Nick and tried to extract as much as they can from him.
    The irony of Nick in this rebuild is that we’d probably have a couple more wooden spoons to our name if he hadn’t have stayed with us from 2012 onwards. He’s genuinely had that big of an effect on our performances. But I strongly believe that we’re better for him being around all of the youngers players.

  • Harry

    The overall disappointment of the season is certainly added to by the pending departure of Nick. He has been a true ornament to the game and the club and to himself.

    When we come to review the season after this week, we will find that there has been many improvements, particularly in individual players; many of whom you have mentioned. Others have flatlined and career decisions will have to be faced. regarding the goal-kicking, all we can probably say is that it is unexplainable.

    I want the Saints to win this week; no worthy loss for Rooey’s sake.