And the phases, never just a phase

By Tom Briglia

Round 2, 2018
North Melbourne 0.6, 2.10, 6.16, 13.17 (95)
St Kilda 1.2, 2.10, 5.11, 5.13 (43)
Crowd: 33,966 at Etihad Stadium, Friday, March 30th at 4.20pm

Version 2

It’s taken only seven days of The Road to 2018 endgame period for St Kilda to be holding “crisis talks”.

Watching the team flounder alongside a wooden spoon fancy to 2.10 apiece at half-time and and then go on to be cut apart felt suspiciously out of date by three or four years. When we finished on the bottom of the ladder and we could look forward to begin our ascension armed with young, talented top draft picks and, eventually, that big fish we would land through trade and free agency.

Having sat on what happened Friday (or what didn’t happen) doesn’t make things feel any better. This was one of those “no positives” games that we’ve run the risk of seeing any week through the darkest days of the crash and supposed rebuild (essentially the worst of Round 1, 2011 onwards). Weren’t we done with that stuff? Watching a bad team, with a clear direction yet to emerge but with so much apparent potential, losing a bad game of footy? This is 2018 after all – the exact same 2018 as seen in The Road to 2018 in which we finish top four. The club told us, remember? Well, the road to 2018 sucked and right now it sucks being in 2018.

Last week I left the ground dismayed that what the club had done to game day. This was the same, but with the focus on the actual football, so it’s been a comprehensive effort by the club over the first two weeks. The blowtorches are literally out.

***

I said after the Lions match I felt like I was at a TV set rather than a game of footy. This week the roof was open, and not being our home game we were spared the Kmart jingle (not that we would have heard it too often), although the Pine O Cleen version of our song was used again. Despite this being the very new Good Friday time slot, with the sunshine streaming in and no match day experience bullshit forced onto us by the AFL, it actually felt like going to, you know, the footy, compared to the previous week.

It felt embarrassing that this was fixtured as a marquee event, although it’s a tie-in with the Royal Children’s Hospital Good Friday Appeal so the pure footy blockbuster aspect isn’t really in play. It looks like a small pool that they want to rotate this one through, i.e. clubs with neither enough success nor supporters to have never been able to cultivate a genuine rivalry with anyone over time. That leaves us, North and the Bulldogs as far as Victorian clubs go, but even the Bulldogs have a recent flag.

I really don’t know if a half-time scoreline did justice to the horrors of this one. North weren’t great either but they played in a way that at least reflected the entire club’s push to have not just established but keep this game. They played with purpose, and it was more about their goal kicking in the first quarter rather than our futile attempts at getting the ball forward that made the half-time scoreline what it was.

Not sure how many of their fans accounted for the 33,966 that witnessed that tripe, but next year we can go back to Good Friday being the near-universal day off we knew it to be. We failed on both counts – a big crowd (regardless of the numbers breakdown) and decent performance. The AFL had the gall to tweetStill some tickets available for #AFLNorthSaints if you can get to @EtihadStadiumAU today!” in the lead up. Do they know we can see through that shit? Ultimately the joke was on us for turning up, and as I get closer to my 30s I’ve learned more and more than the joke’s on us for following this club.

***

There were a few things to look out for after last week – more Billings and Acres good stuff, a response from Paddy, and a response from Billy after being towelled up by Stef Martin. Martin is one of the more mobile rucks in the comp and Richo let slip during the week that Billy has been carrying a hip “niggle”, which was borderline bizarre after the events of Mav ’17. As it turned out Billy copped one in the balls from (perhaps appropriately) Ben Cunnington in the third quarter, and Josh Bruce had to take his futsal ring-in game to the ruck, which was in turn taken to the cleaners.

Longer was the only one with a borderline excuse for his performance aside from Carlisle, and I think any Saints fan would have taken one to the nether regions if it meant getting away from this.

saintscrisisBecause the crux of it, really, is that…everything was bad. The “want”, as Richo would say, wasn’t there; no intensity, no real care, evidently not too much thinking, and basic disposal of the Australian Rules football was poor. If North had kicked straight from their gettable opportunities in the first quarter this would somehow have been a lot uglier. As I said, as far as we were concerned it had more to to do with the kind of shots we were having than anything else, reflecting shanked and shoddy build-ups and a couple of dropped chest marks from Paddy and Bruce each, having the previous week managed to pick through the Lions and capitalise on having a lot shots from close to goal. The difference between Round 1’s 16.11 and Friday’s 5.13 is nine scoring shots, sure, but it’s also 64 points.

Billings and Acres had moments. Acres threatened to turn the game in the third quarter with an genuinely excellent running goal from outside 50 and near the boundary line, and then had a shot from right in front of goal soon after denied by a howler of a non-decision from the umpire. If a shitty decision from an umpire is enough to quell a faux-push to take back the game then you’ve probably got no business getting closer than the final 52-point margin. Billings managed to find the ball 23 times and looked to have been moved higher up the ground as we looked to for some better ball use, but don’t confuse his ability to hit open targets in general play on Friday as a positive for him. Those should have been the default for the team.

Carlisle was a Hercules in defence, and he also kicking our opening goal (it be the only goal of the first quarter). Longer took some painkillers on the bench and had gone into the rooms but somehow made it back on after Bruce struggled against Goldstein, and Carlisle was bemusingly swung into the forward line.

There’s a bunch of things to take out of that. We were down by 11 points going into the last quarter but a) There was a reason why Ben Brown had kicked one goal at half-time, which was Carlisle’s intercepting in the air and general ability to compete, and b) there was a reason why we’d kicked 5.13 to three-quarter time, which was our intensity, decision making, and disposal, not because arguably our best player was doing an excellent job in their own position.

Rather than maybe order a different approach to ball movement or shift personnel higher up around the ground (or maybe the players could have shown some pride in what they were doing, but that’s a slightly different conversation), the coaches’ move saw Ben Brown end up with six goals – just as Damien Barrett and Spud (with the Jarrad Waite extra included) said would need to happen if North would win. Only St Kilda would allow those kinds of iffy calls to get up. Nathan Brown wasn’t big enough nor sharp enough to keep up without Carlisle around, whether it was a long, high kick to the goal square or a kick to a lead for a set shot goal just outside 50.

It only added to the suspicions about Richo and perhaps the wider coaching group’s game plan and ability to not really make any hugely positive match-day moves. Carlisle in defence has quickly become code for we’re fucked. Right now we’re relying on blue-collar intensity and grunt to make things work, and yesterday we didn’t want to, weren’t able to, or were too slow to make things happen. Against the Lions we looked to change the angles or change direction but it’s not our disposal that makes that effective, it’s a combination of awareness and hard work. For all of the better quality players we have had access to and the war chest we supposedly have built up for recruits we still severely lack players that are genuinely potent with the ball.

Jimmy Webster had 30 touches off half-back and while his good disposal is probably amongst the team’s best he’s got the Matt Sucklinds about him. His shanks can be royal. Roberton can somehow cruise through traffic but Webster is the one who can really pierce through the ground with a decent kick. Savage had a lot of the ball too and while his game his different we might be getting to a similar point with Jimmy that for each handful of better moments there’ll probably be a slip-up.

Our drafting, recruiting and development personnel will be under more pressure the longer this goes on, but the coaches bring all of that to game day. The evolution of Acres and Billings, should it continue on the current trajectory, would help, but then we’ve got Sinclair playing more as forward after a great year on the wing, and Gresham is rarely given more purposeful roles higher up. I understand that he’s being used early in his career in the front half in the same way that say, Jack Steven was, but Jack Steven was trying to break into a team that was playing in Grand Finals. Further to that, the coaches got a bit ahead of themselves by playing Stuv out of full forward, Jacobs’ tag or not. Yes, make some changes, but Steven and then Carlisle to full-forward aren’t the ones. Stuv is not the type of player Dangerfield or Dusty are that can command a position like that.

***

We have a growing list of failures in big games too now – Maddie’s Match last year aside, there were capitulations against the Bombers the following Friday night and then against Melbourne in what appeared at the time to be an effective Elimination Final. The year before that we didn’t offer anything against the Bulldogs in Round 2 for My Favourite Hair in the Fox Footy Commentary Team’s 300th game, and then later in the season against North after we played our way into finals contention. After years of Finnis and Summers trying to get us into a decent time slot we’ve now dished up another bucket of lukewarm greywater. If – if – the first two performances are a guide to the rest of the season, then never mind Good Friday; we’ll have a whole year’s worth of a shitty fixture to worry about 2019.

Aforementioned dropped marks aside, Paddy, Bruce and Membrey finished with exactly zero goals between them. Paddy had a bit more focus on him during the week with a piece from Channel 7 about his diabetes, while his performance last week raised the usual questions about Paddy vs Petracca, is he fit enough, etc. etc. I don’t think what’s going on up the ground has done him justice for two weeks out of two now, and it was his 23rd game. The concussions have not just stalled his development but have been the result of Paddy applying himself a little too much if anything, and that’s specifically what Friday was missing.

The precedent for poor decision making, let alone the inability to follow it up with decent disposal, had been set in the first quarter. Newnes blazed away on the 50-metre arc early when he he two teammates within a couple of metres, and thinking back it was just as likely to have been a lack of communication than a lack of smarts. Blacres was running through the middle towards attack and gave off to Gresham, which drew the player and left Blacres in Blacres of space 60 metres out, but Gresh had already made up his mind to hit up someone out wide. The one-two is an old trick but sometimes it works.

***

The first five minutes of the final quarter was ready-made for being sped up and packaged with the Benny Hill song, a la the sadly no-longer-available video of Clinton Jones’ disposals and shot appearances against Adelaide in the Round 21 of 2008 (nothing particularly wrong with those disposals, it was just worked purely with his mechanics). From then it was just quietly horrifying. What has happened over the past four seasons? How far can you get on being “up and about” for parts of some games? The group was called into a meeting on Saturday morning that hadn’t been planned ahead of the weekend.

Does Mav coming back in change any of that? He had the same numbers as Dusty’s Thursday, but in a VFL practice match. Dunstan got a lot of the ball too, and if Mav’s fit then I’d say the pair would provide something more than a few guys did on Friday. But like last week within the game, the whole team fluctuated between on and off. Billy’s balls might bring in Rowan Marshall too, but until we simply don’t know until we know if this is an outlier or not.

SEN trumpeted Garry Lyon’s declaration that Richmond’s loss on Thursday night was “a little warning bell” as news. For fuck’s sake, if that’s a thought and a headline anywhere in Round 2 for the reigning premiers then maybe there’s a 24-hour news cycle and a whole lot of people who believe in it that need to change. The broader media storm around the sandpaper in Cape Town saw a lot of wildly shifting sentiment from commentators and the media, and Saints fans (myself included) had a shocker of our own to deal with. Call for Richo to be sacked, questions about why his contract was extended by so long ahead of time, questions about the club’s recruiting, questions about the club’s development, questions about the club in general. They might been simmering for a while but the bewilderment following Friday felt a little more deserved. Something stinks a whole lot. This has been several years in the making, with a serious plan behind it. One that included 10,000 members in New Zealand and right now is heading towards the AFL Hall of Infamy.

The occasion of the game tempered things during the week and for moments afterwards. Regardless of how ridiculous it looked in the moment the players handed out Easter eggs to fans after the game, Richo did the press conference with Cody and Brad Scott with Thomas, and North and Saints players did a lot of the week’s marketing and community stuff together.

These can all co-exist with how we feel about the club’s current direction. For the first time we genuinely had a case for the Road to 2018 being the failure that the St Kilda Football Club so often promises.

A home game against the Crows next week on a Saturday night, and no amount of Kmart jingles after goals will help a poor situation on the night (not a good one, either), and a poorly re-recorded version of the club song certainly won’t. If we shit out the same kind of performance and The fucking Fratellis are playing again late in the game after a token goal (if we actually do manage to kick one late) then we’ll be hitting a new level in a pathetic comedy that so many parts of the Club would be accountable for. Rod Butterss ridiculously looked into having stage lighting during games in 2007, that completed its natural evolution arc with Fremantle short-circuiting any post-match feelings last night. If it looks ridiculous for a win, how does that kind of garbage look when a club has botched another carefully planned half-decade? The joke rolls on, and this is just one week of an entire season ahead to take it all in.

  • Campbell

    Great write up Tom.

    I can’t recall being that angry during a game at any stage of my life. After deplorable performances in seasons gone past I’ve normally retained my composure bearing in mind the ‘road’ that we were on. During Friday’s game my prior concerns regarding Richo and his lack of competency was confirmed. I’m simply amazed at how far out of his depth he and the other coaches are. As Rich points out, that game raised so many questions that my mind is simply spinning.

    Development coaches, do we have them? Is there a system? Why are the players that we draft and then coach/train unable to make the same decisions that players at the 17 other clubs can? Why can’t our 20-24 years old execute basic skills under AFL pressure? It is astounding.

    What style of football do we play? Do our boys know the style? Do they disobey team rules/structures/instructions as they’re confused? Do our players train? What do our players do during training? It ain’t hand balling, kicking or tackling, or marking!

    Why does every team implement a zonal press against us yet we still haven’t worked out how to get through a zone? Why do we always go long down the line? Why is Jake Carlisle, a 202 cm defender (developed outside our club!) the only ‘defender’ that can kick and mark? Dylan Roberton? We will never get near the top four whilst that guy is in our team and continues to take kick ins. Where the F*&% are Coffield and White….FFS.

    This reply is largely incoherent. I blame that on Richo. FFS.

  • Tom Briglia

    Thanks as always for the comment Campbell (“Do our players train?” lol). And I wouldn’t call it incoherent. There are too many things to talk about and try to make sense of (as they stand now) and lot of those discussions would inform the other and need their own threads and I’m already tangling myself up in this reply.

    Great (and a little scary) point about Carlisle. Is it our development system what Melbourne’s was? How many decent players have we been able to recruit/develop on our own since over the past…10 years? It was masked for a time by the fact that we had a decent team and we were expected to naturally fall away. But now we’re at a point in which we’re on the record as saying a whole lot of fantastic things should have happened by now and holy fucknuts we’re gonna need to pull out a 1997-style Stan Alves crisis meeting post the Round 2 loss to Brisbane to turn this around. That might be good for a year as that was, but there are too many things not quite right that won’t allow a sustainable turnaround. You’re right, Coffield and White need to play; as Rich said Paddy and Long too. They just have to. New coaches? There’s been a slight shuffle. New recruiters/list managers? Bains is gone and Liberatore promoted. There probably needs to be a whole lot more. I could say “It’s only Round 2″ but I’m not sure if that’s good or bad.

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

    Tom – excellent report. There’s so much to unpack from that game and I think you’ve done a good job in covering the bases.

    Firstly, thanks so much for providing the insights that obviously seem so beyond (or wilfully ignored) by the vast majority of the “special comments” brigade on footy broadcasts. That is, the Carlisle move and the fact that Ben Brown had 1 major at half-time.

    (Also the point about Richo’s seeming inability to make in-game changes is a really good one and deserve’s it’s own deep dive post).

    I think…if most of us are brutally honest, that the fact the we got the W last week let us sweep a lot of bad thoughts, lingering doubts and big questions under the proverbial carpet.

    Friday, under the spotlight of the Footy World, in the non-prime time of 4:20pm, we didn’t show up ready to play – after failing on that front only a week beforehand. In the depths of June, when injuries have crept in and it’s just bloody cold, you can perhaps excuse a sloppy start or so…but Round 1 is supposedly what the group has been building towards for four months?! If anything, you’d be expecting to criticise the group for being overzealous.

    Richo’s coaching, the general recruiting strategy underpinning Road to 2018/post-Ross, the make-up of the current playing group, the re-signing of Richo last year, the strategy in regards to developing the swathe of young talent that has entered the Club in the last 3-4 seasons. These are all hot topics that I think would’ve/could’ve/should’ve been launched into post-Lions, but we none of us wanted to jump the gun.

    Another thing the general media didn’t address in regards to Richo and the Saints was that, the North game was actually a really big game. And I mean, aside from all the fuss made about Good Friday and prime-time and all that. It was a very important four points to be had, in the context of what the fixture holds for us in the next few weeks.

    Like any big disappointment with sporting clubs, it’s always most telling to see the response. Unfortunately, it’s very easy to see Richo (and the match committee) resorting to re-installing many of the safe D-graders – such as Mav, Lonie and Gilbert – at the expense of guys who clearly need to be developed (namely Paddy and Long).

    The biggest disappointment for me last year was that the Club clearly dumped the idea of developing players who have a big case for being part of the next great team we have, for the idea of finishing 8th. I really hope that they don’t go down that path again.

    (Re-postinggggggggggggg. Cheers)

  • Tom Briglia

    “The biggest disappointment for me last year was that the Club clearly dumped the idea of developing players who have a big case for being part of the next great team we have, for the idea of finishing 8th.”

    Mav had the sort-of excuse of the ankle last year, but the club was equally complicit in that. I’m sure he’ll come back in this week, but with his slimming down etc. his game will need to show some evolution. Marshall needs to play, Paddy and Long need to stay in; as Campbell said so do Coffield and White. Dunstan will come back in with good reason. Hunter I’d be happy to stick with. Lonie is always thereabouts. Otherwise we’ve been having a bet each way for too long and Gilbert and Armo need to make way more often. Not sure if they’ll want to drop a more senior guy like Armo in the face of the Crows, but equally Ross and Steven, and even Dunstan and Mav, need to step up and play more effective leadership roles. The fact that Dunstan and Mav aren’t in the team but are still on the next tier of leadership shows that right at this moment we might have “depth”, but really it’s just a lot happening in a very shallow pool.

  • Harry

    Tom. Good review of a terrible day’s work. You hit the nail with the intensity thing. Our lack of star quality and genuine pace means that we have to win the intensity/contested possession game in order to be competitive. If we don’t win on these we tend to get blown away reflected in the fact that last year our defeats tended to be sizeable – 30 to 50 points.

    So let’s go back to footy being a week-by-week game and look for the big turnaround this week. Unfortunately, the Crows are a team that always seems to have our measure.

  • Tom Briglia

    Hey Harry, you’re absolutely right. We’ve lost our last seven against the Crows going back to 2012 – margins of 4, 40, 86, 79, 46, 88, and 57. Those last five came in the Richo era (beginning with the wooden spoon season of 2014) and average 62.08 points – so they’ve been a consistent example of those sizeable defeats you mention. Not a great form line.