100 times

By Tom Briglia

Round 15, 2018
Melbourne 4.2, 9.3, 11.6, 18.9 (117)
St Kilda 4.3, 11.6, 14.10, 18.11 (119)
Crowd: 38,910 at the MCG, Sunday, July 1st at 1.10pm

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After a dour two-month period as fans we’ve now been shaken around with two two-point wins. Off the top of my head, the last time we had that kind of back-to-back mayhem was the one-point loss and a draw to open 2011, keeping in mind two games prior to those was also a draw. None of this means we’ll have 50,000 for the Friday night game against Carlton in a couple of weeks (it’s strange to think we sold the place out two years ago), with a week buried again interstate in the Saturday twilight timeslot at a ground we’ve never won at sure to sap some momentum. We’re giving away tickets on Shop-A-Dockets for fuck’s sake; you’ll find a photo of Tim Membrey alongside half-price Docklands-to-Portarlington ferry trips and Avis truck rental discounts (Sunday to Thursday). Whichever way, on Sunday, for the first time this season we saw what 2018 was supposed to look like.

We mystifyingly dropped Logan Austin, but to make the marketing team’s job slightly easier ahead of what should have been a loss we brought in Darragh Joyce. Cue a wordy gag about having to look beyond Australian Rules footballers and over to County Kilkenny for hurlers to make something of our benzodiazepine-influenced ball movement and confused onlooker defence. He became the third Irishman to play a senior game for St Kilda, following pick 99 in the 1988 draft Dermot McNichol (wearer of our highest ever number in a game with 60), and Colm Begley, who somehow was on our list in 2009, and somehow managed to play a game that year, joining names like Troy Gray and Luke Miles as Guys That Played But Didn’t Make it to Grand Final Day. That one game – Round 19, in which we dropped everyone and still beat the Hawks in Tassie – was probably the high point of that period. Undefeated, and bulletproof. It was also the end of the run. Somehow, Tommy Walsh was never one of them, even though it took us ripping one of Ireland’s best Gaelic footy prospects out to the other side of the world to not play him, as the team hated itself following 2009 and 2010 Grand Finals, and played like it.

Darragh ran out in 39, made forgettable over the past decade by Alastair Smith and The Panther Cam Shenton. I remember thinking four years ago who would end up being the flotsam and jetsam of the rebuild; the Chris Olivers, the Brett Moyles, the Daniel Wulfs. Not at all to say Darragh will be one, but we’re still going through them.

***

Given what’s transpired through this year, the prospect of a Melbourne-St Kilda rivalry in the mould of last decade’s Geelong-St Kilda enmity has been put on indefinite hiatus. A few weeks ago, Melbourne were looking like the most dangerous threat to the Tigers, and despite a couple of losses the gap between the two teams currently (and their short-term futures) has St Kilda looking likely to be the only team to have not broken their long-term premiership drought by the time AFLX takes the place of the season proper, and all club songs are replaced with either Dodo ad jingles or lightshows as the Perth teams continue to try and conquer the late 1980s.

St Kilda’s plummet and Melbourne’s step up has sapped any anticipation for these games, particularly after last season’s meeting. Round 7’s official lodging of scores for record-keeping earlier this year at the Concrete TV Set and Future Marvel Outlet seemed the perfect appetizer for the microwaved late lunch usually scheduled for Fox Footy at 1.10pm on a Sunday.

After they’d kicked the first three – Brayshaw had kicked two of those just to add to the inevitable Paddy-over-Petracca reminder – it looked like it was going to be a rude afternoon. Eventually, our sort-of love affair with the MCG started bringing out the best in our set-ups and our ball us, and while it will never become “BALL”, the smattered comments of “It’s the extra space here at the MCG” grew to at least rival the bolter “Arms!” for the defender’s chop.

Perhaps the space adds something to the structure itself, but on top of that we continually got numbers and follow up efforts from contest to contest. While the lesser space can make the overlap and support a little more difficult if you’re trying to find some space to run into with the ball, for the same reason I can say from my relaxed vantage point that theoretically it should make things a little easier to crunch the opposition for space.

We actually lost the inside-50 count 62-50, but still managed to win, and I don’t know when the last time we a) lost the forward 50 count by so much was, nor b) what our most efficient return has been.

Part of the reason why that happened was that the way played brought out the best in guys like Sinclair, Gresham and Billings particularly. Not only has our game style and execution been a fantastical failure this year, it had also sterilised a lot of the class and creativity those guys bring. It sliced open space and meant less pressure on the kick going forward; even then Membrey, Gresham and Battle particularly all did some special things once it got closer to goal.

So where has it been all year? Curiously, it was there for a large part against the Tigers, so maybe it was hanging out at the MCG waiting for us to turn up again. But if you’re good enough, a few extra metres of wings shouldn’t make or break you.

***

Gresham again played a career-setting game at the MCG. At what point do we say he’s already good? He’s now kicked five, six and four goals in his last three games there, but his presence around the ground has become more influential. He was being played off the defensive side of the wing at centre bounces, and it paid off in the first quarter with his slick charge through traffic in the middle, breaking through and then kicking on his left to the lead of Membrey. Two goals in the third term were telling – the dashing run with Salem along half-forward and a neat finish from a fortunate free kick, and then pushing forward to stretch the field – and his last-term read of the ball and bodywork from D-Mac’s entry, and punch of the ball as it bounced up towards Membrey, with Oscar McDonald approaching front-on, set up a vital last-quarter goal.

Billings and Sinclair – with some Gresham sprinkled over the top – make for mean threats higher up the ground. After more than three months, the dream of Billings kicking long to Paddy has reformed.

Steven motored his way through the game, and kicked what proved to be the sealer. He willed himself to the savings acts in the final 30 seconds by tackling Petracca, who took the ball from Gawn’s hit-out, ran onto the ball once it spilled out, spun away from the incoming Jetta, and measured the kick into difficult territory wide and forward. He charged over to the bouncing ball from his own kick and took out Petracca who had beaten him to it, and forced the ball over the line the second spill (more Noise of Affirmation was required for the umpire to pay deliberate). Appropriately, Gresham was alongside him through the play, and when the clearance from the throw-in went our way, Gresham smartly punched the ball from a high Sinclair handpass out to Steven, who chipped back to Richo’s Mate Dave to keep the final seconds safe.

***

I’m not sure if the club wasn’t specifically planning ahead of this season on giving the marketing over to guys who would be playing at VFL level. Bruce has been behind a fourth gamer (who is our most exciting draftee after four games for some time), Billings caved under the pressure of being the club site background guy and Hat Model and was dropped earlier in the year, and Armo is always several minutes of overloading away ending his season. Bruce was a certainty to have to #feelthezeal for a bit because this was the best combined day for the three tall forwards (yes I’m aware Tim Membrey is shorter than Blake Acres and only centimetre taller than Seb Ross and Jack Steele), but now Josh Battle is out with a fractured eyesocket. Hopefully the zeal has rubbed off on him, because on Sunday we saw some of the best of Billings and Armo.

Paddy continued his bemusing run of not being able to kick more than two goals in a game. I thought his three in the draw earlier this year might have broken things open but after two early goals he only managed to kick 0.3 from five set shots (one went out on the full and the other was a dead butterfly). He was huge in the first half and has obviously been told to back himself from set shots. While that’s something that worked for Membrey – Richo said in public as much on his yips run – Paddy attempted several tough ones from out wide and on the 50-metre arc. I’m not sure how high anyone’s ceiling for shots like that will ever be, particularly for as long as he keeps creeping that close to the man on the mark, but if we ever need to take one in emergency circumstances then I guess we’ll have at least one guy who’s practiced.

It’s still the helmet and the patch on his arm to monitor his blood-sugar levels; they make his efforts seem more herculean. He still comes across as one of the very, very few guys that plays like a captain, and has the bigger presence and personality of a captain. Sunday maintained that for another week, and you could argue it was his best all-round game of actually playing Australian Rules to date. He was firmer with his hands willed himself to some strong marks, and he’s motoring around the ground more effortlessly.

Battle turned up at key moments despite shanking a few kicks and a handball in the early stages of the game – notwithstanding an incredible contested mark from a high kick that rained down vertically on him (he missed the subsequent shot). Like Carlisle, he has very soft hands when the ball hits the contest. One of Richo’s favourite post-match press conference phrases is “it might not be your game, but it might be your moment”, and he found a few in the last. Some excellent bodywork and balance, and then the hardest part of all for us in 2018 – a direct kick to someone close(r) to goal – on his left foot to Billings by himself in the goal square; he went close to sealing the match himself neatly working off first-gamer Petty deep in attack to take a good mark from well-weighted Armo kick and goaling, and then put on a crunching tackle up on the wing late. It wasn’t quite the four goals in his fourth game having kicked one, two and three before Sunday, but he again showed he wants to get involved, and he gets involved. He

***

Gawn was arguably the best player on the ground, and whichever ruckman we played we’d have been giving something up. Longer had saved his own game at Carrara, and in a large way the team’s, with some excellent hit-outs in the final quarter, but there was simply no way he could track Max around the ground. He came off when Gawn did, spurring an increasingly-common sighting of two non-ruckmen going into the ruck against each other (Paddy vs Weidemann at the centre bounce was decidedly a 0-0 draw, and there’s the obligatory World Cup reference). Hickey collected 34 disposals for Sandy on Saturday as the Zebras went from kicking 0.9 before the bye to 21.8, but Max would have had all of the hit-outs if we opted to go with Our Very Own Stephen Merchant and challenge him around the ground. Given Viney’s storming last quarter, that might have prompted an even bigger performance through the game if Max was effectively directing the ball from stoppages himself. Might have been an OK move.

Steven aside, Jack Steele was back to a more physical role and with 11 tackles (and a bit going forward) reminded as to why we got him. Richo’s Mate Dave played his best game since his golden weeks of 2015, and showed the kind of steady head we’d looked to him for since. His well-weighted kick to Battle late to set up the mark and goal was the kind of thing you look to leaders for in those moments.

He snuck in the goal on half-time, too, and the photo of the team celebrating has been used widely in the coverage since, and looks far more appropriate for celebrations on the final siren. Only a few weeks ago this club appeared at its lowest for some time; Callum Sinclair kicked a goal after the half-time siren to make us look more pathetic and as he was lining up, each of his Swans teammates came near him and celebrated together when the ball went through. We sat there in disbelief, thinking how much further this club could fall, while also being reminded what a good, professional, close footy team looks like. This deep into such a shitty season, it was a little bit incredible to have us creating that kind of moment.

***

Moving Seb Ross to defence was an interesting one. Shuffling was needed with Brown out of the game and Hogan going closer to goal, and he’s probably not needed if Jimmy Webster is there but all of a sudden we’ve got something vaguely resembling a small portion of a Plan B on game day. Armo playing well certainly helped; Dunstan and Mav were a little quieter but if we’re kicking 18 goals I’m not sure if we’ll tinker outside of Webster, Bruce and Austin coming in for Darragh, Battle and Brown.

I’m not sure what the hell happened from some point early in the last quarter at Carrara to D-Mac but he looks like the player we’d supposedly drafted, or maybe the Queensland heat finally thawed him out after we’d left him at the back of the Moorabbin freezer for two years. He might have the longest hair out their atm but the way he parts it has him in serious danger of replicating the G-Train’s 2003 mullet.

It’s still really bizarre for me to have Jake Carlisle as a Saint, and playing the role of the general in the way that he does. Essendon is the club I see as most diametrically opposed to us – it works historically, too – and Carlisle seemed such a good fit for their brute arrogance and entitlement. Since his own herculean performance in the long-sleeved clash jumper in trying circumstances against Port last year, he’s one of our leaders. I never thought to associate him with St Kilda, let alone Trevor Barker, but right now he’s the Best Guy at Footy we have.

***

Five things were hovering around my head as the goal review of Jordan Lewis’s late shot confirmed a goal.

At the start of the final quarter I said to Matt that we’d lose by less than a goal – we were down a player, Melbourne was looking a lot more dangerous with Hogan deeper, and we’re St Kilda. It made sense. I was also conscious of the finish to the Bulldogs and Geelong less than 48 hours earlier, and how Bruce had (with much self-awareness, it had to be said) called the game for the Bulldogs with about one minute to go.

During the last quarter I received two messages from friends – one said “Congratulations” just after Membrey’s final quarter goal, and shortly afterwards another one saying “Carn the Saints!” in a far too triumphant manner.

And then there was one particularly loud Melbourne fan sitting near us who really cracked the shits during the second quarter as the umpiring went our way. When Armo’s kick from Oliver’s 50 metre penalty after the half-time siren started wide – but before the crowd could react – he screamed out “AND THAT’S ALL IT DESERVED”, before it wobbled back to the right side of post. I’m certainly not saying this in a “yeah, fuck you” way; rather, I mean it in the sense that I felt like the Australian Rules Football Gods would ensure St Kilda fans were paid back with interest (because I heard this singular comment), and make sure that our comfort with what we were watching would be shat on royally.

I can trace that thought back to my acutely formative years of St Kilda supporterdom of 1997 and the awful 1998. There’s one goal we kicked at Football Park against the Crows in our loss there in Round 15 – our last loss for the year until we met them on Grand Final Day – which saw a mish mash of Heatley, Everitt and Lappin fucking around with the ball for a little too long before kicking it through on the goal line. Even as a nine year-old, I remember thinking along the lines of “I hope that doesn’t happen close to the final siren in a close game”, and a bit more than a year later we saw Matthew Lappin, Tony Brown and Stewart Loewe fail to find a goal in time as we dropped to sixth place in the final round, losing our second game of the year to wooden spooners Brisbane.

This was an inherent attitude or component of being a St Kilda supporter, and so the final siren seemed like such an indulgence. Sometimes a win is enough. That might reflect a whole lot of things – for St Kilda, over 145 years, more so because they have been a rarity, but we might lose a few things along the way of a rebuild if we cast them aside as not as comfortable as they should have been. My usual walk back from the MCG to the city in the remaining light of day was more buoyant, the crispness of the air was rejuvenating rather than something to recoil from. There was no rebuild to think about in that trek, no considerations of where the list was heading, just that 20-minute walk.

These tight games get us as support attached to Battle, Paddy, Gresham, Billings, Sinclair, Membrey, et al. My walks from the MCG to the city in the 2010s have been as laboured as these posts. The rare occasions of playing at the MCG, where it felt like we only played for finals, and getting pantsed with no obvious direction, still reeling from the initial hit of being so close to saluting in two Grand Finals. The distance between then and now reflects the botching of the rebuild, but we’re collecting these moments and matches piece by piece, as history is gradually written outside of those shadows. Two weeks ago we had Jade Gresham celebrating in front of our supporters on the Gold Coast, and now we have Jack Steven’s arms raised in the air on the siren, in the long-sleeved clash jumper, in the winter sunshine at the MCG.

  • Alastair Pitts

    You know how they say winning isn’t everything? Sometimes winning is enough.

    I would have been devastated if they didn’t get the win on the weekend. They had played so well and clearly controlled the game that not getting the win might have just about broken me.

    That it was also against Melbourne made it extra special as well :)

    I’m excited about our forward line at the minute. I don’t think we are anywhere close to where we should be, but Paddy, Membrey & Battle is a strong front half. I kinda see Battle, Membrey & Bruce as a rotating 3, with only 2 being in the side at the same time (assuming Paddy’s fit and playing). The only thing missing is someone else to take the load off Gresham. Mav’s not getting it done, Newnes is ok-ish and Lonie just isn’t going to make it imo. Long is the obvious fit, but he’s still got 4 weeks to go (at best).

    Seb behind the ball was a really solid change and one I really liked, reminded me of a Hodge-style roaming half-back. Physically strong but experienced enough to set up the defense properly.

    It’s not perfect, it’s not how I want to continue winning games, but sometimes you’ve just gotta get a win.

  • Tom Briglia

    Pathetically late reply, my apologies Alastair.

    Winning certainly was enough on this day. Agree with you on the three talls (including Membrey obviously). Really disappointed Paddy won’t get a clear shot at the rest of this season, but it gives Battle and Marshall – and maybe someone else – some good air time.

    I think you’re right on Long. It’s almost easy to forget we have him, but what he showed earlier this year was much more dynamic in the front half than Lonie/Wright/Mav etc. It looks like Minchington won’t get another shot at it which is a shame.