JLT Community Series #2, 2018
Melbourne 8.4, 11.5, 12.8, 18.11 (119)
St Kilda 4.1, 6.4, 12.7, 14.9 (93)
Crowd: 4,567 at Casey Fields, Thursday, 8th March at 7.05pm
For obvious reasons, this generation of Saints and Demons have been compared in similar ways with the Saints and the Cats of the aughts. This was the final game of the pre-season but it definitely wasn’t the 2004 Wizard Cup Final (how eerily appropriate that Tim Lane calls the word “toepoke” as Milne kicks over to Luke Ball for the final goal). More than anything, this was the last chance for the us to shake off the cobwebs we were tangled up in at Princes Park.
After a Wednesday night against a fellow VFL foundation club at their historic home, it was a Thursday night match against another foundation club. Casey Fields, however, is a beacon of 21st century fluff – nice and new and shiny and “boutique”, but somehow despite all the painstaking planning it that went towards the creation, it’s a bit iffy on character. Not even the wind bothered showing up with its usual force for this one.
The day before brought the revelation that we are keen on Tom Lynch (the Gold Coast one, not the one we already had and then didn’t bother with and is now one of the better forwards in the game). Not sure to make of this one but let’s for a moment assume it’s true – maybe it’s a kick up the arse to our many decent-sized forwards, maybe we’re trying to play games with other clubs. Maybe Lethlean wants to give St Kilda a good old-fashioned showman’s kick up the arse by ordering the lure of a massive name to turn things around not just on the field, but off, too, given our fellow Saint Gillon had just told the footy world that shit from now is on us.
The problem with it is…he’s not a midfielder. Do you just take the best available player to justify all the amping up over several seasons that landing a big fish wasn’t so far away, and sedate depressed and exhausted supporters ? We really went out of our way to justify not getting Petracca, particularly with the line that we wanted to avoid paying what the Bulldogs had just forked out for a big forward in Tom Boyd.
My Favourite Hair in the Fox Footy Commentary Team pointed out there’d been a pretty big investment in Paddy, and perhaps some people are still nervous about our sequel to Billings ahead of Bont. Like Billings and Bont – The Original (you can extend the analogy to those Saints and Cats generations also), I think there’s a decent chance that the other team might get there first, and we just have to hope we have something to show for it some time vaguely in the future. One premiership in 145 years of existence doesn’t do well if we’re going by averages, and we’ve also hit the now of our “Road to 2018” plan, which has us finishing in the top four by 2018 – yes, as in, this 2018 – and a premiership by 2020. Thursday’s second-half turnaround or not, that’s also looking pretty silly at the moment. Yes, the Tigers last year were stunning, and the Bulldogs often used the phrase “Why not us?” around their 2016 premiership, and the easy answer to that is “Because we’re St Kilda”.
If there’s anything more dangerous than St Kilda fans being angry, upset and bewildered about how things have panned out since early early in the afternoon of Saturday, September 25th, 2009, it’s St Kilda fans just not caring anymore. Jake Niall wrote an excellent piece about the ever-present energy and urgency of of Richmond fans, as well as those of Collingwood and Essendon, even throughout their leaner or more difficult times in recent decades compared against the relatively indifferent Blues over this century. The difference is, Carlton’s sleeper support is still one of the biggest in the league, and money would be in no short supply when required.
At half-time this was feeling like a dry run for a time perhaps not so far away in which it’s clear we actually botched all of our draft picks, that the league is far more intent on AFLX crowds and franchises than anything else and an AFL premiership doesn’t really mean that much anymore, and we would have kicked ourselves long and high and without thought into oblivion by then anyway.
You know you’re the St Kilda Football Club when you’ve got Petracca and Clayton Oliver doing MAJOR LEAGUE SPORTS millionaires celebrations in the second quarter of a pre-season match. Mind you, Oliver had just kicked a goal from outside 50 against the wind, just moments after Dunstan – from the same spot at the other end and with the wind at his back – for some reason rushed to move the ball on and scuffed a right foot kick along the ground. If this is meant to be the opposition in the next great rivalry then fap away.
Going with the nuclear option/Tom Lynch even in that moment wouldn’t have helped. For the first time ever I saw Paddy crack the shits and I couldn’t tell if it was because Bruce sort of spoiled him in a marking contest, or because whoever kicked it into the 50 did so right between two one-on-ones, but it was probably both. It was well established by then that we’d also fallen back into the habit of sticking to the line of play. I don’t know what the trigger is for the players to do it or not do it is. We couldn’t help ourselves last year even with the on-field leadership of Roo and Joey, and we sure as fuck we couldn’t help it for another game and a half.
Paddy’s wtf expression as he realised what had happened summed things up: what actually needs to happen for players to not blaze away and just at least kick to the advantage of the forward? Everyone could see it happening. Everyone can fucking see it. All the time. Even in a practice match hurtled to the the most remote part of the outer suburbs we could all see it broadcast clearly on national television.
Our best passage for the half involved a neat Coffield and Clark combination off half-back and the increasingly valuable link-up of Billings, before our supposed best player Jack Steven blazed away from the 50-metre arc to sort of but not really Paddy’s vicinity. Gresham pounced on the ball for a hurried shot and missed.
As members, supporters, fans, what were we looking to at that point? Do you make the decision to keep watching, knowing it’s just a pre-season match but without having seen anything real that suggests we hadn’t gone backwards?
Until then it was fleeting moments; Coffield, Clark and Billings joining up, Coffield’s bullet from the wing to Paddy’s lead, Paddy presenting repeatedly across the ground and his follow-ups when the ball was low, Roberton still bemusingly good at Australian Rules football. Otherwise all we had to do was sit back and relax as Melbourne Demons heartthrob Bernie Vince spear tackle Josh Bruce and Jack Billings into next weekend’s break. My bed was literally two metres away and that’s where I ended up watching the second half.
Like Bruce, Billings was a week behind and had to work his way into general play, but that couldn’t mask that he probably hadn’t touched a single weight over the pre-season. He still seemed to be getting knocked around a little too easily, looking like a grenade had gone off near him as hit a marking contest in the first quarter. Latte couldn’t quite hold onto Brayshaw, who was the closest Melbourne player at the ball when he came to from the blast. Brayshaw gave away a free soon after but for someone who is already stuck wearing a helmet for the rest of his career because he’s had a Paddy-esque amount head knocks it was great to watch. For some reason we’re renowned as, and talk ourselves up as, a hard working team, but few guys show the intent he would.
Bruce’s second half reflected the rest of the team’s changes across the ground (but how much acclimatising do you need to not drop a short kick into attack?), but he also had to bring his work rate. He might have been walking off at half-time thinking his poster in Tassie would ultimately be his legacy, and he still came out in the second half and did everything he could to get into the play, even if it meant another chance to add to his blooper reel. I’m certainly critical of him for his output but if everyone showed the kind of willingness he does we’d be a much, much better team. This did bring out what he is capable of, and he finished the work – he held onto marks and kicked three goals in the quarter.
The team’s turnaround wasn’t based on individual flashes of brilliance or huge moments. It was built on a more players buying in, being more willing to provide options across the ground, stretching the Dees and keep them guessing, and of course not bombing Sherrins onto Paddy and Bruce. While the lack of A-graders going into the season remains a concern, Billings, Gresham, Paddy and Acres showed at the very least more reliability whether the team was working well or not, and gave some hope for the prospect of improvement from the younger guys through this season. Even down to Rowan Marshall, who was again parachuted in late, although this time actually got to play a full half of footy. Again he was competitive across the ground and offered an option up forward. He might play a bigger role in this team than we expected.
Special mention has to go to Paddy. If anyone played in the manner of a captain it was him, and his numbers of 15 disposals, five marks, 1.0 and zero tackles belied his presence and effort. Bruce has an air of desperation (and I do mean that in the positive sense), but still hasn’t shaken the appearance of the futsal ring-in who happens to be surprisingly alright. Paddy has an air of being on a mission, and that he wants to take the side with him. He’s still only played 22 games but having been through another pre-season (albeit briefly interrupted) he covered the ground incredibly well and was let down by frankly ridiculous delivery into attack. His work rate once the ball had come off hands was sensational; for both the intent and ability to move so well for his size, and to actually have a presence and effect on what’s going on around him. He does it in a way that Bruce can’t quite match for speed and someone like Billings can’t for strength. He’s obviously still trading on potential, and comparisons with him and Petracca will linger for as long as these two teams share this trajectory. But I think he’s shown more than people have given him credit for in the pre-season.
A lot has been made of Sav’s performance but I think it’s safe to say we’re at a point where this is probably what we’re going to get at this stage of his career – someone who provides genuine drive and speed and can kick a huge goal, and will inevitably shank a few kicks and occasionally not have his full faculties about him. His wrap sheet in the first quarter was ugly enough – a long kick out to no-one in particular came straight back for a goal, dropping an uncontested mark near the Melbourne goal, gave away the free-kick that gave Melksham his second, and then gave away a holding free to Jesse Hogan for a shot at goal. He carried his forward 50 entry form from Princes Park into this one too.
But even Sav came to the lower-your-eyes-and-kick-it-shorter-if-need-be party in the third. His 30-metre spear forward to a hard-running Bruce reflected the difference in the team. Not only did he give the forwards the chance to create something, but instead of continuing the switch of play and go further across the ground – the obvious next move – he quickly changed direction and punched the ball in.
As soon as Bruce put us in front in the third quarter, coverage cut to jack Steven being taken off by two trainers, and not putting any pressure on one leg. Quickly the real focus of these games was back. By then we’d probably shown what we needed to feel vaguely ok about the tune-up, but Football Gods forbid you may partially begin to enjoy St Kilda playing decent Australian Football in a meaningless practice match.
Despite the holes in defence opening back up in the last quarter for a few cheap goals, it was clear with several moments remaining the two teams just wanted to get out unscathed and without any bizarre scoreboard activity. It ended up running to a similar script as Round 21 last year; a sloppy start cost us before we overcame a circa 40-point deficit to make it a contest, but fell away again. That game – at the time – was essentially an Elimination Final and we were monstered when it mattered. It’s much too early to know how far we’ve progressed from that day, but the next game we play marks the beginning of finding out. Make the most of the week off.