Thin line from here to here

By Tom Briglia

AFLX 2018

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It’s not an ordinary pre-season when Jack Billings becomes the AFL’s poster boy for anything, really.

The prologue to the post-Nick Riewoldt era also featured a helicopter for some reason, proof of Ed Phillips’ existence, “Timmy and Jimmy”, “Saint Kilda’s Paddy McCartin” in the Financial Review, and something that wasn’t actually Australian Rules football.

Billings found himself alongside North Melbourne’s Shaun Atley as the faces of said-sport, which was described more often as a “concept” than anything else. Outside of the St Kilda fanbase, Latte’s meteoric rise from “improving young player set to fulfill his potential” to “AFL (well, X) headline act” was probably baffling to the wider footy community, who would still primarily identify him as The Guy We Picked Instead of Bont.

He looked and sounded like he’d spent most of the pre-season doing media training. He’s literally toned up, a far cry from the shy 18-year old with outdated hair we drafted in 2013 (or even the shy 22-year old with outdated we played in 2017).The announcement of Geary as captain (again) and the leadership group was baffling, with extra ignominy added for the video production, sunglasses and stage management of having him and Roberton, Ross, Newnes and Stuv all stepping off and walking across the Moorabbin turf to waiting media/St Kilda social media staff.

Are we back to the 1980s and the boorish days private ownership and the Swanettes? I was looking for the branding tie-in with the chopper. It would have made more sense if they did the reveal by the leaders one-by-one bursting out of the tubs of Dare bottles they hand out before games.

Josh Bruce, Mav and Armo were cut from the leadership group, which was probably a surprise to no-one. Armo has entered Hamill 2007 territory, while the confirmation by Richo that Mav struggled with “a very bad ankle injury” through 2017 was probably an indictment on the coaching and medical stuff as much as Mav himself. Mav’s slimmed down from 91kg to 83kg apparently. Josh Bruce, well…yeah. I (and a few others would have) said last year that if everyone showed the effort he did last year we’d be a much better team, but he’s a long way off being a “leader” given his ultimate output on the field, and that he lacks the vocal and organisational aggression. Let’s hope Ben Dixon’s goalkicking nous extends to shots from general play, too.

So we’re left with Dylan Roberton, who theoretically could actually get better this year after starting his career as another nondescript guy at the Dockers with a slightly odd name. Then there’s Seb Ross, our raining best and fairest but not necessarily the most outwardly vocal or physical guy; Jack Newnes, who has an excellent head for the marketers to work with and is Mr. Consistent, but I’m Mr. Consistent with these posts dragging on too much. Jack Steven still comes across as a 16 year-old boy. As Dad said, “it’s missing a certain factor”, let alone X.

The publicity stunt worked in so far as it earned the lead article on the back page of The Age. In true St Kilda fashion, we followed that up with the revelation that we’d been given $20.6 million from the AFL last year, which most of may or may not have been directed to Jack Billings’ media training.

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Billings wouldn’t even make it to the shitshow that was AFLX . The club canning the intra-club event in lieu of “match simulation” the week before suggested that two bruise-free glorified training drills was enough to cover it, and Latte apparently pulled up with “hamstring soreness”.

The monotony of the gameplay proved the “concept” to be a different sport entirely. It would actually look more interesting where it is intended for use – at the junior level (i.e. the AFL talking about difficulty accessing grounds in Sydney), and internationally – levels and locations where professional Australian Rules football players aren’t found.

Despite us becoming the first club to ever get bottled up in a game of AFLX, broadly speaking this was circle-work played by people that are too highly skilled for any human element or drama to be allowed in, not to mention the short span of the game. Goals were meaningless; not only was there no chance to celebrate, there was no point because the other team was always within two kicks of scoring, and without needing to be in their half of the field, either. Games of footy turn because someone puts their body on the line, a whole team lifts and answers the call of something bigger than themselves. They will themselves to a pack, to take the hit after running harder than would seems physically feasible in that moment. There was no chance for that, and there was no real chance for a game to turn on willpower, or wanting to lift 21 teammates with something that might not be in your own best interest. And certainly no reason for it. Three “Grand Finals” over three nights; how dare they even try. One end of the turf is reserved for kids sitting on bean bags for fuck’s sake.

Actually being at the ground was dour. Fucking music and literally flashing lights and smoke machines going off every time someone kicked a Zooper goal didn’t need to prompt the question of “why are we here?”. I went because I’m tied to the St Kilda football club and it needed a $20.6 million hand-out last year. I left the ground wondering if Zooper Doopers will ever be mentioned as much in the space of 72 hours again. What if they didn’t sponsor the “concept”? I can only guess the AFL approached them because the brand name sounds like “super”. You can’t really call them JLT goals; I don’t think James Brayshaw screaming that a player can “GO JLT” quite works. But it didn’t quite work or matter once Mark Blicavs was having a ZOOPER shot literally within five seconds of the “tip-off” with the ill-fated silver ball. The at-the-ground commentator that came through like a racecaller on the Thursday night broadcast was just extra noise at the ground; they’d obviously been told to not be too excitable. Just a little excitable. They had bean bags and 40-metre arcs for that.

What to take from a St Kilda perspective? That’s why I write this blog, but this concept lends itself to nothing in particular for form guide purposes. In 40 minutes of footy – no time-on – I remember Coffield and Hunter Clark both putting on some big tackles. I remember Dunstan looking like he was relishing being captain in the first game; Jack Lonie was busier in several minutes with some nice goals and an assist than he would be over 120; and Ben Long kicked a nice goal before going for the OPEN ZOOPER at the beginning of the second half and missing. Seeing Ray Connellan in a St Kilda jumper was nice, seeing Ed Phillips in human anywhere was interesting. Rowan Marshall was in turbo Rhys Stanley mode, making every contest with ease and looming as something of a behemoth that couldn’t take most marks with the first grab. The first level of Corporate Dome brought in was nice, but as an old friend once said to me, “biscuits are nice”.

The way Gil spoke on the Thursday night broadcast about potential for international teams and competitions played in the future, IPL/Big Bash style, and across different leagues was just as terrifying as the experience I had at the ground. Is the AFL trying to create a future where this is what the game ultimately represents? Is this what they want to the game day experience to be? Did they ever ask anyone this? This is the beginning; they’re not ditching this anytime soon. The idea overall isn’t new, but they gave themselves to turbo-charge a lot of things they’ve been doing on regular match days. I was looking at a game in which the focus is forced towards multiple trophies being handed out to placate everyone – who knows, maybe one of the three clubs you follow won one of them – which is played at all times of year, with more noise and default music than required anywhere, literally while you’re sitting in a beanbag. One thing the AFL has done incredibly well is keep winning a premiership and Grand Final Day as sacrosanct – it is all tied to the one season, with no players switching clubs halfway through; it is the last footy played for the year (in a country that general day-to-day life is heavily tied to calendar years); it is the only competition that matters; it is a life event for people. I’m here because one day I want to see a St Kilda premiership, and I don’t want to have waited a lifetime for some DJ to quickly blast a shitbox U2 song and fireworks to go off when the final siren goes as kids and corporates sitting on beanbags clap politely or get up and leave immediately because what does it matter? They paid for a ticket, they were vaguely entertained enough to maybe do it again some time, maybe for whatever bullshit competition with “retired stars” is happening next month, and that’s enough.

It was far, far too early in the season to be questioning these things.