Familiar, and a long way from home

By Tom Briglia

JLT 1 2018
Carlton 5.3, 8.4, 11.6, 13.11 (89)
St Kilda  1.0, 4.7, 7.10, 9.13 (67)
Crowd: 8,098 at Princes Park, Wednesday, February 28th at 7.10pm

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In the same week that we played Carlton at their historic home of Princes Park, the AFL released its non-plans for a genuine overhaul of (the) Corporate Stadium (precinct), our official home ground. Meanwhile, Luke Dunstan, Shane Savage and a bunch of graffiti were spattered on the back page of the The Age at our portables at Moorabbin ahead of our official return to actual buildings.

We all hope the move back from Seaford will not just revitalise the club as our list develops. We hope it marks the end of a period in which we failed to utilise arguably our best ever list playing the best footy in the club’s history to a) win a premiership and b) establish ourselves as an independently viable, strong football club off the field. Zero premierships and a $20.6 million hand-out from Gillon last year would sound horrifying to a Saints fan in early 2004 as the Riewoldt, Hayes, et al group began to make their mark.

From here, I feel like we’re just as likely to end up wading in a pool of mediocrity long-term; see Carlton under Ratten-Malthouse, or North Melbourne post-2000. Attending practice matches, whatever the branding, doesn’t do anything to ease or exacerbate that fear.

Although for not much longer, Moorabbin is still an unfinished work site with a bunch of scribbled portables. It’s a temporary state before the official move-in, but it crossed my mind early in the second quarter as I watched a game in which Carlton supporters sat proudly and arrogantly at their spiritual home.

And sure, we were in Carlton heartland. But even in the pre-season, an umpire’s decision or passage of play that goes the way of the Saints is met with silence or booes of 7,500 Carlton fans that is far more intimidating than 17,500 fans at Corporate Dome. Ticketing and seating was a free-for-all so through the first quarter I gradually sauntered over to the front of the Legends stand, built at a gradient bemusingly low as is it bizarre that the construction of Corporate Stadium’s allows an AFL match capacity of not even 55,000. The 13-0 2009 showdown against the Cats retains the all-time Australian Rules record of 54,444, but the Round 12, 2016 game against Carlton – technically a sell-out, and one that saw queues outside the ground well into the second quarter – only registered 47,495, owing largely to the hideous corporate pandering of the Medallion Club arrangement. Despite the Wednesday night timeslot on a hot and blustery day, two VFL founding clubs playing at one of the most historic grounds in the comp made this a far more genuine trip to the footy than AFLX at Etihad on a Friday night would ever feel.

There’s nothing coming back the other way – we don’t have a place like that of our own, unless some weird miracles happen at Moorabbin. Moorabbin has little if anything left of what made it Moorabbin. Through their VFL flags as Footscray in 2014 and 2016, the 2016 AFL premiership, and a high-profile AFLW team, it is the Bulldogs that have become an integral community club in the way that few others can be. Amidst that, the Whitten Oval – like Princes Park – has kept major stands, is host to AFL pre-season matches and AFLW matches, and could legitimately be floated as an AFL ground if there was enough willpower and money. Moorabbin will try and be shaped as a community hub, serving as a base or host games for Sandringham Dragons, the Southern Football League and the Southern Saints. But with the total demolition of the old stands we risk just having an oval next to a slick office building with a gym in it, as we do in Seaford.

And the Australian Rules football.

Ah, the injustice of being a St Kilda supporter. Sitting in the forward pocket in a very similar position to our seats in the 2009 Grand Final at the Hawkins end, and seeing a Saints snap at goal called touched despite Liam Jones’s outstretched hand being clearly behind the line,  just moments after Jones’s wayward spoil attempt smacked Paddy in the face, drawing blood and giving him a nudge on his place on the ledge overlooking concussion. Carlton fans had the gall to give the bronx cheers for receiving a free kick in front of the Pratt stand soon after, and they quickly pulled out a cheap goal up the other end. The fucking injustice; I could feel it at one-and-a-half quarters into the first pre-season practice match. Footy’s back.

I don’t know what we really expected might have changed over the off-season, but it wasn’t lowering the eyes going forward to find a shorter target, much less provide some movement into space and provide that target in the first place. Watching Sav wheeling around onto his right from outside 50 to kick a long ball that needed to wrestle with a fickle, swirling wind before it landed vaguely near anyone at all was met with a text from Matt – “Richo looks stressed.” I sure as fuck hope he did. Incredibly, it was Lonie who had the wherewithal and skill to execute a bullet around the corner to Newnes, who missed on the half-time siren. Not sure if Dicko was around to see that one. Meanwhile, the Blues were pulling out slick and occasionally arsey stuff at will on the counterattack as we laboured and bootedthe ball long into the 50 over and over again for fark all reward.

The first quarter was a write-off. We gave an arrogant, rich, loud club fodder to be more arrogant, richer (probably) and even louder. They were lathering up in the outer as Paddy Cripps kicked a couple of goals to enhance his (well-earned) golden boy status; as we made new recruit Paddy Dow look like a warrior with his chipped teeth and couple of majors; and Matthew Kreuzer showed up the shortfalls of Billy Longer’s game to an almost comical degree – speed, agility, mobility, strong hands, goalkicking threat, Australian Rules, and so on.

There was at least a little more urgency from some players in the second quarter. For a second I thought Billy was going to go Lazar Vidovic vs Fremantle in the opening round of the 1995 Ansett Cup after Simpson met Sinclair. Speaking of, the club posted to the socials a picture of Loewe and Burke with the 1996 Ansett Cup, saying, “It’s always good to meet Carlton in the pre-season”. Sure, but that competition doesn’t exist anymore and I’m pretty sure that, despite their club withering in the early part of this century as paper bag transactions became rarer, they still have the equal most premierships in VFL/AFL history with 16, and we still have the least, with one. And there’s no reason to think we’re much closer to our 2nd than they are 17.

Take #4 for #1

Paddy is the obvious one to pick out here – as the supply lifted he kept presenting, having been our only goalkicker in the first quarter and working to defensive side of the wing to get the ball out of traffic. He was very vocal had more of a presence than any game I’ve seen him play. I kept an eye and ear on him, a rare element of taking in the game you only get when watching the footy at a place like this, and it also made it more obvious when he was burned twice in quick succession. A period of play in our front half along the broadcast flank had him screaming at Gilbo from a couple of metres away to give off inboard to a couple of open players, but the kick went long and wide of fucks knows what. Literally seconds later the ball was coming back into the 50 via Potential Next Captain Luke Dunstan, with Paddy screaming for it in space over the top of the Carlton player coming up to meet Luke, who decided blaze away deep. Fortunately, our only elite player, Jack Sinclair, was able to mop it up, complete deft twists and turns got it out to Hunter Clark who had enough composure to finish under pressure..

Having had his nose split in the contest with Jones, Paddy followed it up with a dropped mark right in front of goal that he would take several times out of several and a bit. In fact one noticeable part of his game overall was some of the great contested marks he took. On this occasion he took liberty of immediately going low to hunt the ball and led with his head. That his endeavour is so uncompromised is incredible, that his head wasn’t buried into the Princes Park turf in that moment was another.

Perhaps it’s just part of him even more so now. That may be what breaks him, but that may be what makes him, too. He finished with 2.2 and a couple of total misses but was a menace when there was more considered entries up forward.

The second quarter was also noticeable for me because I watched Hunter Clark looking to take the body of Marchbank and Byrne after they dished it off in traffic close to the forward flank boundary, undersized or nor. A few seconds later he kept his head over a low ball and took the hit from an opponent. No questions. He also had the composure to kick two goals in tight situations on a night that had us at 7.12 during the last quarter. How often do we find someone so ready to play AFL football straight up? Hunter finished with two goals and supplied Carlisle with an easy goal from in close in the latter stages of the game, having run purposefully into space from the rebound and actually assessing options before going the Sav Special. I don’t think it will be long until Hunter’s bandwagon is full, and he is already providing hair X-factor also.

Coffield, on the other hand, probably put in the most Jack Newnes-like performance since, uh, Jack Newnes’ performance on Wednesday night. I mean that in the sense that I barely noticed him as he racked up 20 touches off half-back – with five rebound-50s and four inside-50s. He was much neater than Sav appeared, but this is before considering Sav’s experience and higher ceilling (for now), as well as Brandon White, Bailey Rice, D Mac etc. Ideally Coff will be leading that pack at some point. We’re literally one practice game in but his composure and awareness are qualities that translate through the step up to AFL.

The switch on the wall beside you

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I’m sure one of the emergency lighting…lights – there were several sitting on top of cherry pickers after the AFLW debacle – was flickering as I migrated to my favourite stand in the ground for the second half, the Alderman Gardiner Stand. I’ve seen a lot of rate second rate pre-season games featuring second-rate Saints teams in that stand. It was suitably subdued and mediocre to be back, all the more so as the weather turned a little. But I do associate it with the few games a year I can sit back and relax and watch the Saints and enjoy taking in these renewed relationships with the sound of the crowd, the frustration of a poor kick, the excitement of a new player showing something.

It was obviously tough in the mid-week footy training at McKinnon Oval lighting to see, but overall people didn’t really miss out on anything other than Rowan Marshall (debut in the clash jumper) playing the last 20 minutes of the game soccer-sub style, and Jack Lonie making a physical impact and having some form of presence beyond the opening 15 minutes of the game. Armo was physical and he was busy, and he was first one and hardest to go for Simpson after the collision with Sinclair. But like Paddy, until a few games are strung together the spectre of innocuous injury looms large. Also is it just me or has Armo…changed over the past couple of years? Black eye aside, he came across in his post match interview with Josh Gabelich as so much more…mature? Maybe he’s focussing on his footy more now that Armo’s Challenge looks have to have been shelved for Jimmy and Timmy.

For all intents and purposes, this really did look like two teams who hadn’t played proper games of footy for a few months, once you were able to figure which silhouette belong to who. That was St Kilda players blazing away going forward, as if the ample time over the off season to correct that shit had never occurred, whilst Carlton were inherently slick enough to mop up our mistakes and go back up the other end cleanly and effectively.

Richo looked genuinely disappointed in the post-match press conference which was reassuring, and most would agree that with him when he said the positives were more around individuals rather than systems and methods. Again, there’s been a bunch of months to correct those, so I’m assuming (hoping) it was the players that weren’t quite doing what they should have been.

Near home

Finding a car park near the ground was more difficult than last year, when I think I had to wing it in a permit zone for the corresponding match. My local knowledge was unable to give me any decent leads, but I managed to snag one on Park Street just a few metres off Royal Parade. Not only does Princes Park itself present novelty factor for people starved of footy grounds with an actual soul, but it’s also very close to RWB‘s Brunswick West HQ. I was home within 10 minutes of leaving the ground, which felt bizarre, and I’m sure is just one component of the nostalgia for the suburban homes of our clubs.

The sun had set on summer and the wind was still blowing hard, but now had a chill. I went down from my seat to closer to the race and watched the players walking off. No one truly proven, no one that we’d ridden with to a decent part of September, no obvious candidates to lead us the promised land. I thought, “Who the fuck are these guys?”

  • Janine burdeu

    Now that’s just depressing.