When there’s nothing to do

By Tom Briglia

Round 11, 2018
West Coast 5.0, 10.1, 15.3, 16.5 (101)
St Kilda 2.1, 5.3, 7.3, 14.4 (88)
Crowd: 54,188 at Optus Stadium, Saturday, June 2nd at 6.10pm WST

Untitled copy
For the second time this year I’d been arrogant with my amount of sleep during the week and was subsequently struck down with a whingey cold/faux-flu. Like the last one striking for the Geelong match, I was again settled in front of my large bedroom monitor with Foxtel Go showing a non-Melbourne match, wearing my giant pink dressing gown next to the heater and waiting for St Kilda to lose so I could go to bed.

Another week away from the concrete TV set at least added up to a welcome break from being actively shitty about how unenjoyable our home games have become thanks to the club’s “fan initiatives”. Aside from this week’s Pride Match – the first of which I really felt was an excellent, excellent occasion – we get an extended rest from the noisy post-goal, sterilised club song, no-one-asked-for-this home game experience, and a chance to see if the club bothers to do anything about the mess it shat out in that time.

Having watched Sandy get pantsed on Saturday afternoon, you’d be forgiven for thinking we were heading for our own 186. Would West Coast eat us? Would Mav Weller not quite get up from his concussion and be a late withdrawal and be replaced by Ben Paton, before Jack Darling would literally rip off his head and feast on his torso?

Instead, with a few minutes to go the chance of snatching a draw was bordering on realistic. The final quarter – that for all intents and purposes should have gone seven-goals-to-one the other way – ended up with me throwing my phone face-down across the room and onto my bed, so as to avoid receiving forewarning messages due to the several second delay my broadcast was on. There was still another goal or two in us after that point, too.

Until that point we’d been travelling pretty comfortably amid the “new normal” regime of simply being outclassed by a team, despite for two weeks the inaccuracy bug having been alleviated. Who would have been specifically upset about being 48 points down at three-year time? What would have surprised you otherwise? For all the endeavour, and indeed, actual promise shown by guys that maybe should have been playing before this year, the Eagles were simply too slick and the gulf in class was reflected on the scoreboard. Their movement across the ground was better, the leading from their forwards (i.e. Josh Kennedy) was better, their passing to their forwards was better. More spirited performance or not, the lack of anguish as the Eagles kicked away in the third was the launch party for the official arrival of winter, after the club had delivered advance copies directly into our hearts early in Autumn.

***

All three of Jack Billings, Paddy and Ben Dixon would have been breathing a sigh of relief once we finally decided to show up – Billings with the early effective kick from higher up the ground, Paddy (still with helmet) with the early set shot goal, and Ben Dixon timing the Fox Footy boundary riding vs St Kilda goalkicking coach duties to perfection, coming off our most accurate game for the year before actually being there for the sequel.

Membrey followed on his return to his Field of 1.5 but for confidence and movement shown when we actually got the ball it still felt like we were long way off it. Or out of it? It seemed like there was bruise-free footy going on.

There were also the token, borderline-comical calamities going forward. Newnes lined up from outside 50 and went the disguised chip kick, only the chip was about 45 metres long and went to zero St Kilda players. Seb Ross, the man who is almost but not quite the next captain, used our numbers advantage while Jack Darling lay on the ground after hurting his ankle by kicking straight to a West Coast player with a shorter kick inside 50.

It didn’t take much for the game to just slip away from that point. Ah Chee managed to outmark Tom Hickey on the wing and break open the play that set up Waterman for a goal, but even when we had the ball we were still doing our best to mess it up. Newnes grabbed the bouncing ball on the boundary from haphazard kick out of our defence, but I think he was more surprised than anyone that he’d pulled it off and had his kick comprehensively smothered, wasting a real chance even to just get some territory when we shouldn’t have – having someone snatch the ball out of a ruckman’s hands on the wing and set up a goal for a first-year father-son recruit who’s playing great is what team do against us; we’re five years into this coach’s reign and are still impressed by a little bit of a spin. Needless to say, the Eagles went straight up from the throw-in for a Willy Rioli goal

Newnes was busy in the quarter. He followed that up with a run along the wing that ignored three players on their own inside that could work it up, and instead went long to, uh, Shannon Hurn instead. His goal on the half-time siren was a Bizarro St Kilda moment indeed, and he stood up again in our last quarter run with a set shot goal when there was no margin for error. For the silly things he’s capable of doing I’m liking the idea of him in the forward half more than anywhere else.

We also got a gift in the middle from a Rowan Marshall-esque West Coast centreing ball, and Sinclair came through and gave it off to Mav Weller, 40 metres out by himself, who didn’t pass it off or go for the traditional-style drop punt, but ran around the non-existent corner and shanked the shot. Sinclair had provided the highlights of the half, setting up Membrey with a Robert Harvey-esque shimmy to move past an opponent and kick to Membrey in attack, while Membrey had reciprocated with a strong contest against two defenders to punch it down to Gresham who bodylined the ball, and got it out to Sinclair who pulled off a similar move for a goal.

Kennedy had been threatening all night, even with Jack Darling off, and busted the game open in the third. The 48-point margin at the final change could easily have become 90. Membrey’s sixth goal brought the margin back to just 18 points with 4.53 left. Two Jack Lonie shanks – one out on the full, the other straight to Andrew Gaff – brought us back to reality, but that was far more normal and familiar than anything that had happened in the previous 15 minutes. We take everything that happened in final quarter as much as we take what happened in the first three.

***

One thing immediately noticeable in Richo’s press conference was that he didn’t talk about it like we’d come away with an incredible honourable loss. Overall, he still seemed as straight-up as he had after most games this year, although I’m sure he might have been quietly pleased that he saw some more positives to work with than usual. He was certainly keen to praise Bailey Rise, but when it came to Logan Austin is was about how playing on Kennedy would be great experience and a lesson for him. Keeping in mind this is a guy who on the surface was one of our best, playing in probably the most difficult position on the ground in the competition at the moment – i.e. a tall in defence, playing against the Eagles. On separate occasions Kennedy took marks against Gresham, Geary and Phillips, and I’m not sure how much of that Austin was responsible for, but he (I think Richo called him “Lausty” the other week?) ended up with the handsome numbers of 26 possessions and 14 marks, and our backline looks a whole lot more mobile with him there.
Rowan Marshall was supposed to be our answer in defence. AFL.com.au was running with “Saints find solutions for big problem down back” upon Prospect being named in the side, which was fantastic news, because for a minute there I was getting worried about this club and this season and this rebuild and the past 52 years. He had some good and some very bad in his game. Twice in the first quarter and once in the third (with Lecras) he was involved in marking contests and failed to impact on them, and each either directly led to or eventuated in an Eagles goal. Through the periods we were able to keep the game flowing he actually looked quite good in his follow-up work and in traffic across the ground, and has evidently pretty slick hands for what should be a forward/ruckman. Somehow, he ended up with 22 disposals, and whether or not he keeps his place next week aside, I hope his game isn’t graded too heavily on his work as a defender.

I remember in the 2013 pre-season when we strangely beat Sydney (and more inexplicably, wore our clash jumper) and Rhys Stanley, having trained in defence, had blanketed Sam Reid before getting injured. I don’t think he really spent any meaningful time in defence from then on, and has never really found his place in the game (when his body would allow him the chance). Part of me was hoping Marshall would prove within 30 seconds he was somehow an incredible, untapped key backman but Lycett took a mark on him 33 seconds in and set the standard. Fortunately, Roma didn’t get injured and we still have him available, although Carlisle coming back into the team probably means he comes out anyway. Safe to say our Rhys Attempt #2 looks a lot more comfortable elsewhere.

Making way for your team’s best player aside, Roma’s the kind of player we need to keep getting minutes into. You could argue we’ve discovered more about who will be there in the more meaningful part of the Road to 2018-2028 by playing young guys over the past month or two than we actually did over the past two years.

We’re much more mobile out of the backline with Webster and Austin roaming around, and more fluid with Phillips, Rice, White running off half-back. Both because of their own performances and of the team around them, Gresham, Billings and Sinclair are now able to show more of their class in decision making and execution around the ground, the lack of which had gone a long way to making us toothless and slapstick professionals. Clark played in the middle and still looked more composed and physical than most guys.

***

The club gave up a chance of furthering development over the past couple of years after being seduced by its own Road to 2018 charm offensive. White, Clark, Austin, Rice, Marshall, Phillips, and Coffield – even Paddy has only played 31 games (and a lot less have actually been full games) – rather than Gilbert, Richo’s mate Dave, Nathan Brown, and realistically where would you see Geary next year? I don’t like saying any of these things about those guys, and I don’t like where this club is at right now.

Playing youth en masse is fine, but even when we had a senior core through the early aughts there were clear leaders in waiting – Riewoldt, Hayes, Ball, Maguire, Kosi. We have Weller? Newnes? Ross? Steven?

Right now, I would say that Paddy is still the only one on our team that actually plays like a captain. Geary’s out for a couple of weeks and you would assume it’s either of Ross, Steven or Dunstan, or perhaps one each week, that will take the role. It simply wouldn’t be fair on him, but a small part of secretly hopes Richo does a GT after Round 14, 2005 when Kosi became our captain and spurred him to arguably among the best several consecutive performances by any Saint.

There were a few things that stuck out in his game on Saturday night that don’t really come through in the others that you would assume are next in line to be captain. Perhaps wearing the helmet makes him seem like he’s doing all this under more duress, and certainly his size helps when it comes to presence, but I thought he really looked like a warrior at times; the guy who kept presenting and kept competing knowing that he probably wasn’t going to be the one that gets the direct kudos or much on the stats sheet. Billings gave him a one-on-three ball in the second quarter and he still went and crashed a pack and try and create some sort of opportunity for the smalls, only to come off heavily winded as the ball went down the other end for former Saint and our first pick in the 2011 draft Jamie Cripps to pop through a goal.
The diving smother at centre half-back just before the final break – not only when the game was done, but in the final seconds of the third-quarter – is the kind of thing that should be held as a gold standard. It’s the kind of stuff that says to your teammates “let’s go, come with me”. He had the presence of mind to give Sinclair as much acknowledgement as Membrey after he set up Membrey’s goal with that run through the middle.

His follow-up work extended from single actions to what the game more broadly demanded. He took a great mark on the wing only for Membrey to fluff the entry inside 50, but by the time the ball had landed from its shoddy trajectory Paddy was the closest one to it. Rice didn’t quite hit Paddy in the last after an excellent mark, but Paddy still tracked the ricochet into the middle before it got tied and immediately turned to run back to head deep into the forward line. Body language experts might be overrated but there was something about the sense of purpose he did with it that stuck out on the broadcast, coming from a continent away. And possibly for the first time, he made an impact at centre half-back, drifting down for a strong mark and was still presenting there in the final two minutes.

***

Maybe perversely – and this has been mentioned publicly – but Membrey has actually played quite well in games where struggled in front of goal, and yes, namely the Freo match at this same stadium. There’s something about the performances that reminded me of the Port Adelaide heartbreaker last year, in which he seemed to have willed the team over the line in key moments and in tough conditions for a forward, only to be the one on the Power goal line as Robbie Gray’s winner sailed through, just over his fingertips. He seemed destined to be the matchwinner in a dominant role across the forward half against a susceptible Freo, but it was his own kicking that let him – and the side – well and truly down. On Saturday night he carried the team back to within three goals with just under five minutes left and all the momentum. He’s someone I really do wish has a moment, a match, in which their presence cuts through and he gets the reward for his effort and can quite reasonably say to himself that he was the difference in a St Kilda victory. He’s been here for a few seasons, but he’s still only 24, and these fighting performances are what get the fans attached to the new guys, and also reveals the guys who over time are taking on more responsibility in their game for the team.

***

We’ve been stuck in this layer of sediment between purgatory and hell to the point where the timing of it might not matter anymore. I don’t know if it’s because we’re into the eighth season wearing a necklace of shame, or if its that the rage of earlier this year that has subsided. Maybe we’re somewhere in the middle – even that might be being optimistic – but it’s been long enough that you were a different person at the beginning of this, and we’re far away enough from anywhere near the endgame of the rebuild that that doesn’t matter either. Snatching a draw on Saturday night would have been incredible, no shit, and it would be the kind of thing you might occasionally run over on YouTube in the coming years and think, “this is when [insert human] started to do things he’s good at” or whatever you say when you watch any Saints things on YouTube. Otherwise it wasn’t going to directly effect our win/loss record in a season in which we could reasonably dare to dream. Winning and losing, again, doesn’t quite seem to matter anymore. We’ve been sedated after the anger of earlier this year, and the puddle of clumsy comments from the the board and management and coaches trying to explain what the Road to 2018 was, and if it was ever intended to exist in practice. Somehow, it’s easy to forget that we haven’t won a game since March.