Past tense

By Tom Briglia

Round 23, 2017
Richmond 4.1, 11.5, 12.7, 19.8 (122)
St Kilda 1.2, 4.3, 9.9, 12.9 (81)
Crowd: 69,104 at the MCG, Sunday, August 27th at 3.20pm

 

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I’ve been putting off writing this. It can’t possibly be a game review as it usually would be. Inevitably it would be all about Nick. Writing about his last match would also make the fact that he is now retired more real.

Thinking about his final game is to think about his career and be moving in and out of moments of hope and heartbreak, and very little in between. I began shedding a few tears when the scoreboard flashed up his career statistics in the minutes after the final siren; the first time I would see any final reference to his playing career. 336 Games, 718 Goals. That’s how it will remain.

For all intents and purposes, Nick Riewoldt was the one who would lead the St Kilda Football Club to its second premiership. I don’t know how many times I’ve written that on this thing, let alone just thought it. The thought of him holding the premiership cup made sense. Who else would it be?

To believe in Nick Riewoldt playing in our next premiership challenge was to believe that we might be able to find redemption for anything that happened throughout all the extremes since the 2000 and 2014 wooden spoons, and what we seem to refer to now as “the Grand Finals”. Nick was someone that had been there with you for that journey. It made sense that he was the number one pick at the end of the year 2000, at a(nother) ground zero for the club that he would lead with his good mate picked at number two to the promised land. He won the 2002 best and fairest, a season that returned just five wins and a draw. He was a key part of the 2004 and 2005 teams. He was the one who led the team out on the Grand Final Days of 2009 and 2010. It’s worth noting that he was at the front of the “St Kilda schoolgirl” bullshit in the months following the Replay, that marked the beginning of the end. His faux-knee in Round 1 apparently heralded the handover to the players who we hope are part of our next premiership challenge. To watch the end of his career is let all of that go, to let it all become part of history.

In lieu of vast quantities of team success over 144 seasons, it is individuals that have had to celebrate more so about this club. Nick was a beating heart in a human body that represented the club. Right now we can only hope that this club is better for having had him. Hell, even our premiership has solitary elements to it. We remain with the failed St Kilda identity in tact. One Darrel Baldock. One Ian Stewart. One Tony Lockett. One Robert Harvey. Still, somehow, One premiership, by one point. One Nick Riewoldt.

***

I shed more than a few tears as he was carried off by The Most Inaccurate Man in the AFL and, wonderfully, his cousin. I’d taken both my Maddie’s Match and membership scarves to the game and wrapped the former around my face. I stood outside the MCG after the game for a bit but they weren’t really going to stop, so I walked to the city with it over my face the entire time and caught the 58 tram home, sitting in the corner facing backwards and out the window.

Until I’d come home and watched Richo’s post-match press conference and the highlights I could stay in that moment in which we were all experiencing Nick Riewoldt’s last match. He wasn’t quite retired, not just yet. For just those few moments. But watching back his final post-match interview on the ground, his final moments in a St Kilda jumper on a footy field – one based on the jumper he wore in his first game, no less – Richo talking about the day in the past-tense, and then an interview in the rooms with Nick himself made it very real. I ended up pulling my dressing gown over my head, lest an individual look up to my bedroom window overlooking Brunswick West and see my oddly lamplit face crying at my desk over the computer. On behalf of whoever might stumble across that: no thanks.

What to say about the game itself? By quarter-time the season was officially over as the Dockers’ late push against the Bombers fell short. Our effort ended up being a disappointing replica of the Melbourne match just a fortnight earlier; in fact, all three results on the Sunday were the opposite of what was required for us to make the finals.

If we shat ourselves under the pressure of the occasion and the gaze of 53,000 people against the Demons, then the 69,000-plus fans might have amounted to the most people Billings, Gresham, et al might had ever seen in one place and the effect was the same. Never in it as Richmond looked like the top four team they’ve become, getting first use and breaking down any move we made coming the other way, and getting an even contribution across the ground.

Flipping the Port Adelaide result would have only meant missing out on finals by percentage for the second consecutive season, and we were rightly left lamenting inherent aspects of our game plan rather than just thinking “what if” about a few moments and ignoring the constant inaccurate kicking and useless delivery going forward.

The final few minutes were almost – almost – enjoyable. The stress of this season, the stress of having a countdown clock on Roo’s career, they were coming to a close, and it should be pointed out the Richmond fans and players were excellent in their reception of him after the game. His first mark on the wing in the final minutes was met with a huge cheer, as we sought to soak up what he brought the field for perhaps the final time. The umpire decided to step in and pay a free kick to his cousin Jack, which was a little bit funny to begin with, and was made funnier when the smiles on the ground brought everyone in on the joke. Shortly afterwards he took another contested mark in the same spot, and still managed to break the emotion of the moment by kicking a torp. I don’t think he particularly tried kicking it any further than he usually would have; he carefully put it onto his boot to make sure he kicked it correctly, and it took me a couple of days to realise it wasn’t a barrel at all – it was an NFL-style punt; a nod to a sport he loves and the country that is now an integral part of his life.

It would prove to be his last contribution. He would be on the goal-line for the kick after the siren. The final play of his final game. As Josh Bruce moved to wrap his arms around him, Jade Gresham kicked his fifth goal.

***

It would be remiss of me to not mention Joey after today’s announcement. He never got rid of the loopy kicks and he was probably the most unfashionable of a core midfield brigade with Lenny, Dal and, for a period, Harvey, Thompson and Powell. He was capable of long running goals too but also handy for some clever moves. His great goal late in the third quarter of the 2009 Grand Final has been pushed to the darker corners of our memories. It would prove to be our last goal of the 2009 season.

He was overlooked over the past few years as a leader around the club. It’s hard to compete with Riewoldt’s blonde hair alone on the field, and it’s more of a shame that his exit would be pushed so far into the background. Leigh Montagna’s 2010 season is second in St Kilda history for most disposals with 745, 10 ahead of Robert Harvey’s 1998 season and 11 behind his 1997. Joey’s 2009 is seventh on that list. Of the 1,589 people to have played for St Kilda, he has played the seventh most games.

***

“Be proud that you’re a St Kilda person.”

In the frenzied off-season following 2010, Nick made an impassioned speech at the club’s annual general meeting. He closed with these words, which were so simply against the tide of the time. In front of the board, the entire playing list, and members, he took a swipe at the media and at anyone looking to “denigrate us”. As fans of course we were all feeling it, and the 2011 season would prove the players were too. The introduction of the black collar and cuffs on the jumper felt like a mark of disgrace emanating from the failed premiership bid over so many seasons, and after so much promise.

It was left to him to guide the club out of the black hole it was swallowed by. Even in the 2010 Draw, it was Roo who wouldn’t let us go down, who took what remains an overlooked mark across half-back to shift the play to our front half for the final score and final moments. In a club that has only existed in extremes, seven days later he would be on the wrong side of the moment that represented the gulf between the teams. Dodgy knee and frustration aside, he took on the figurehead role through another wooden spoon, and the early, unrewarding stages of a rebuild. Of course, he suffered extreme personal duress in that period, also.

For the first time this club will be without a clear leader, or clear heart and soul. Barker’s career overlapped with Frawley and Lockett, which were given over to Harvey, Burke and Loewe. Harvey remained, and Lenny and Riewoldt were there to take on what had been built from 2009.

That lineage is done now appears done now. It really began with the 1991 and 1992 finals appearances, took in 1997 and the failed 1998, the rebuild to 2004 and 2005 and then 2009 and 2010. History will tell us if it represented the closest to a golden era the Saints can get after the period overseen by Allan Jeans. That era succumbed to a long winter, and after this season we’re painfully unsure that this rebuild will take us close.

***

That Nick Riewoldt would ever retire seemed something bordering on unfathomable for so long. I remember early in 2004 thinking how bright and how endless the club’s future looked. Nick embodied the notion that GT instilled in him – that footy is a reflection of the person. Nick was the embodiment of St Kilda in a number of ways, and therefore he represented something so dear to us for so long.

Nick’s retirement is sad perhaps because felt as if it came at the right moment. That, definitively, it would ever be a reality. It is a reminder that time doesn’t wait for anything or anyone. Not even Saint Nick.

  • Janine burdeu

    Now you’ve made me cry you silly bugger. Beautifully written as usual. Feel Joey may have hung up the boots early if for no other reason than he offers leadership where there is none. Once again for Sainst supporters it will be a long two or three years in front of us. But I am proud that I, my friends and family are still St Kilda people.

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

    Janine, do you mean to say that we’ve still got a mountain to climb in the next 2 to 3 years?

    I think Joey has made the right decision. It’s both a credit to him as well as an indictment on our current list that he was the only one of our players that Champion Data ranked as “elite” after the 2016 season.

    Joey has been playing as a half-back, in quarter-back style but we’ve several options in that role such as Brandon White, Bailey Rice, MacKenzie etc who need to be brought through.

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

    Thanks for another brilliant write-up Tom.

    I think it’s been difficult to watch Nick for long periods this season. After incurring those two injuries early in the year, his effectiveness was curbed and he genuinely seemed old out there, despite his will never wavering.

    It only adds to the frustration of this year that Nick wasn’t able to play in September one more time. I think that would have been a more fitting book-end to his career.

    Montagna’s career will probably age well. His longevity is undeniable; he was deemed as our only player in the “elite” category according to Champion Data at the end of 2016.

    My main memories of him are his goal in the ’09 Grand Final, as well as just being way too small for his jumper through ’03, ’04.

  • Tom Briglia

    Thank you for the kind words Janine. It’s been an emotional few weeks, but it’s probably been an emotional couple of decades really. The Saints do things in extremes – a little scarily, if we don’t sort things out soon we might be a very middling and mediocre team soon enough.

    You’re right about Joey. As fans we obviously don’t see the bulk of what Jarryn Geary brings to the team on training track or behind closed doors. Either way, there is a very big leadership space to be filled (as you mentioned, particularly without Joey) so it really will be necessary from guys like Newnes, Ross, etc. to step up and own that.

  • Tom Briglia

    Hahaha very good jumper reference.

    This year has been incredibly frustrating. But I think the silver lining is that a greater proportion of the workload was carried by guys like Ross, Billings, Steele, etc. Richo said at the start of the year improvement might not necessarily come in the form of more wins than 2016, so I think he was hinting that he was expecting an outcome similar to this. The difference is, we were in the top four at half-time of Round 15 so to find ourselves in this position from then is what makes it so disappointing. The trade and draft period will be huge, because this is the now. The club is officially on the record as aiming for a top four spot by 2018. Are they still expecting that right now? Would they say something publicly about that if they were? Everyone’s on notice.

  • Janine burdeu

    Hello again you two. I get this RW&B blog from my cousin, we have a regular email diatribe after every match, there’s about 17 of us mostly family and friends who have met at the footy. For my sins I live in Sydney where their lack of footy smarts is appalling yet they keep winning bloody premierships. We are all mirroring these comments you’ve both made. Draft is the most important for some years. There’s some murmurings about the coach (I’m firmly on side) certainly about assistant coaches and the seeming total lack of leadership. This off season will be full of drama. Please god send us Josh Kelly.

  • Campbell

    Well written Tom. I feel like my entire youth has just retired. Just a deflating experience all round on Sunday.

  • Glenn Webster

    Reflecting on this season with some others at the Precinct last night (a Jim Beam footy panel with Roo was on) the result of this season could assist us during the trade period.

    As has already been mentioned around the traps, Roo, Joey and Dempster has managed to free up salary cap space, along with increased space for 2018 onwards through the PA negotiating significant increases. Being able to place Top 4 (albeit briefly) and some time spent in the 8, coupled with the war chest (money, picks 7 and 8) should help us to entice any player.

    Trust in Ameet – his track record is pretty good so far in getting deals done.

    While I would have preferred Gilbo to go rather than Joey (his injury against the swans cost us when it came to the Port game) it opens up the chance for White and Rice to get game time. DMac is a bit of a lost cuase I fear, given he has suffered from a case of the Gilbos quite often at times, while trying to emulate Fiora (spectacular mark) every 2nd game.

    While pace is an issue, Freeman and one of the two Irish boys (Joce/Connellan – can’t remember which) will address that somewhat, however adding in Kelly would solidify the mids.

    I also wouldn’t be against someone of McVeigh’s talents coming in on a yearly contract. His leadership and poise would definitely become a major asset to a team that may be lacking some top end leadership talent.

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

    Janine, for your sake, I hope you can find yourself in Footy heartland when the Saints are contending for a flag. Keep the diatribe going until then!

    It’s quite fascinating to see how there’s are large sections of the fanbase that have turned against Richo. I think the broader media view here in Melbourne is that Richo has done “just enough” to warrant an extension.

    The criticism about the assistant coaches I feel is one that is thrown about *every* time our team isn’t fully clicking. Back in the early Thomas era, there was much criticism online about John Barker (then forwards coach) and others. How these fans have intimate knowledge of the work of these assistants, I don’t know.

    What I would say is, that this group of assistants have been largely unchanged over the Richo era – which, perhaps isn’t healthy.

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

    Glenn, I definitely am so grateful that Steven Hocking took the AFL job that Ameet was rumored to be a contender for. Ameet has a lot of runs on the board.

    I’m not sure that our brief stint in the top 4/5 is a real selling point for seducing Free Agents. My main frustration with us not making the finals is that I feel if that qualifying would have been good for our pitch to Free Agents. If the rumor mill is to be believed, then Melbourne are very close to having Jay Lever’s signature, whilst Essendon are also lurking around the Kelly’s of the world. I guess the Saints’ only trump card over these two teams is perhaps the extra cash?

    I can’t quite match your optimism in Freeman or Connellan at this stage. Connellan has been good as a small/medium forward, but hasn’t played in the midfield, while Freeman isn’t a guy I’m holding my breath on. He could well be a joker in the pack, but it’s weird because next year is the last of his contract. The pre-season competition is almost going to be make or break for him, now that guys like Steele, Dunstan, Ross and Acres have all established themselves more or less.

    Regarding DMac – I agree. I don’t think he’s quite going to make it. I’m quite disappointed that we didn’t give White more of a go this year, after such a good debut last year.

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

    I’m going to be reasonably surprised if we end up using picks 7 and 8 at the national draft. My gut feel is that we’ll use them in a trade, most likely to move up in the draft board.

    Right now any ambitions for the top 4 would be very optimistic. Now with Roo and Joey both gone, the idea that we’ll be considerably more inexperienced next year becomes more real. (Presumably, more McCartin and more Rice/White/Long). If so – without knowledge of any potential ready-made recruits off other teams – it’s very possible that 2018 could again be another year of trying to consolidate (ladder wise) rather than breaking through.

  • Harry

    Tom, thanks for the honest and emotional write up of Nick’s last game and the Saints recent history. It was such a sad and disappointing day; sad as Nick playing days are now over after such a long period and so disappointing as far as the team’s performance. Completely done over and when the opportunity arose to get back into the game in the 3rd quarter, the goal kicking yips sealed it again.

    Much has been said about the future and certain players. I would like to mention 2 players that I think deserve a mention – Longer (who has not been a RWB favourite) and Savage (who persisted at Sandy and when his chance finally came he made a great fist of it).

    I hope that O’Kearney is elevated to the full list; maybe he and Freeman can add the needed depth to the midfield. What I am finding hard is that we want to bring in a player or 2 to be the core or catalyst of success, rather than just adding the icing to our own home grown group.

    Not a totally wasted season, but a disappointing one in many respects. No doubt a large part of our future success or not will sit with Paddy McCartin.

    Thanks for another great year of RWB and look forward to your season review.

  • Tom Briglia

    Fuck. <3

  • Tom Briglia

    Also Campbell thank you for your weekly comments this year. Sorry again that I’ve been late in getting to replying (or not at all), but I look forward to them every week.

  • Campbell

    Thanks to you and Rich for the write ups more importantly. Another great year. It’s really a brilliant blog and you both deserve more credit than you get. It’s also great to discuss footy with sensible and balanced Saint supporters.

  • Harry

    I accept that the Coach and Footy Dept at St Kilda know best, but very disappointed to hear today that Nick O’Kearney will not be offered a new contract. Very good season with Sandy and it would have been interesting to see him perform at senior level. Maybe he can be picked up in the draft or rookie draft.