It’s what you do

By Tom Briglia

Round 18, 2018
St Kilda 1.2, 2.3, 5.7, 8.9 (57)
Richmond 6.4, 11.7, 14.10, 16.15 (111)
Crowd: 26,269 at Etihad Stadium, Friday, July 20th at 7.50pm

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So much, too much, had been made of what happened on the field in the 2017 instalment of Maddie’s Match. It was a little more than one year ago (Round 16 last year), but Saturday night loomed as a bookend either way. It would mark a curious, troubling form slump that cost us two seasons, or stronger confirmation that we were deep in a second-phase rebuild.

I don’t know if it was just me, but I feel like there was a sense that we were in with a chance. While Richmond’s loss to GWS could hardly be considered a form slump, we’d somehow won three out of our last four and had lurched so far between best and worst it seems as though everyone, including the club, lost sight of where we were actually at. Maybe we forgot what big games were like and so the fact that were was so much publicity around the match during the week was confused with it being an inherently competitive match-up, the kind associated a lot more with a final.
Nowhere near it. Much like the Sydney game, this was a comprehensive blow-out that was over early and was taken down to a simmer for the second. Last year’s famous half-time score – 92 to 10 – was effectively reversed to 15 to 73 this year. Dimma was right in saying these kinds of games end up with the dominant team taking it all the way, or just holding the opposition at arm’s length and cruising through.

***

So much for this week’s Novelty Bag. My Novelty Hope last week was that Marshall would kick five against a weaker opposition; this week it was that the Tigers would keep a closer eye on Gresham given his last couple of performances, and that Billings would kick four. We ended with 8.9 from the entirety of the team, and the Holman and Dare donations to MRV for every goal ($250 from each company per goal) was awkwardly lean every time that came up on the screen. Certainly not for the intent; I said at the start of the game they would have had a better shot at donating if they did it per behind given our last couple of years.

Paddy was effectively declared out for the season again, meaning the Novelty Forward Line with Marshall and Battle as talls is a lock for the rest of the season. Webster tweaked some scar tissue in his groin and Lonie was “injured”; Seb was back after puking, and club resisted again playing Freeman, Paton and Goddard despite some noises made about them by Richo and on the club’s website. Perhaps they didn’t want to throw a couple of first gamers and one guy who’d missed two full seasons into the path of the best team in the competition. It was also hard to make too many changes from a team that won by 64 points with a relatively even contribution.

Richo got a bit more aggressive in his messaging during week, saying he told the players to “throw the first punch”. In bigger games recently, as finals loomed in 2016 and 2017, we’d simply tightened up and played what Richo has described as “conservative” footy. Against North in 2016, against Essendon on the Friday night following Maddie’s Match last year, and then Melbourne a few weeks later; and Good Friday this year. The latter was so much of a disaster than Richo cited it was something that rattled the confidence of the playing group. Here was a chance to show what the coaches and playing group had learned from those.

Surprise, we came out flat as fuck and Richmond’s pressure was incredible. In fact, we comprehensively, specifically didn’t play the way that we were urged to. Also noticeable was how efficiently Richmond set up across the ground; even without the ball they were very disciplined in sticking to their grid formation across the ground, expanding and contracting as needed, and if it meant a St Kilda player would look to fill a hole that was OK – there was never that much space to find if we were looking to switch or cut back inside from a mark, and we simply didn’t have enough class with or ahead of the ball to move through it. If we tried busting through it with numbers, Richmond hunted us to the point where the next player in any prospective handball chain was second-guessing themselves.

Only a few minutes were needed before the inferred pressure started taking a toll. One of our first forward 50 entries hit the deck after a kick across to Geary, and D-Mac basically tripped over himself heading towards the spill and kicked it off the ground and out on the full in front of the Richmond cheer squad. Down the other end, Geary, The Captain of the St Kilda Football Club, tracked a rushed kick into the Richmond forward pocket with two teammates around him but dropped the mark and the ball dribbled away and over the line. Gilbert got lost twice trying to stay with his opponent leading to a mark on Richmond’s half-forward, literally spun himself out of awareness and to not stay on the mark and then not pressure on the centring kick, despite being a couple of metres away. He tracked over to the fall of the kick inside 50, only to have a free kick paid against him for in the back, despite Lambert (I think?) falling on his side in the tackle.

Richmond had 6.4 at quarter time and several of those were snaps from near goal – Jack, Lambert, Higgins and Rioli, showing the value of entries deep into the forward line and some considered positioning and movement around the fall. A bit like what we try and do but the kicks don’t go anywhere near to advantage, they’re in weird spots, no-one is really there to keep the ball locked in at the very least and when they do get a chance to have a shot they probably miss. Edwards’ goal in the last quarter, started by pressure on Rice and Clark deep in the pocket, ultimately came from Vlastuin getting to the outside of the traffic and splitting the forward 50 open with a clever long handball the eventually ended with a shot just metres out. All the numbers, the higher work rate, and some footy smarts.

***

Richo had a chance to shake things up with the group in front of him at quarter time (“throw the first punch, again”) but Richmond walked in the first two goals in the first 150 seconds through Riewoldt and Prestia. We were in the slicing-to-ribbons-via-Sydney territory, when the unease around the club’s uncertainty reached its most volatile point.

There was a moment in traffic when Hickey was slowly moving to handball around the 50-metre arc and a Richmond player pinched it out of his grasp, barely breaking stride. I swear Hickey looked at his hand for a split-second as if the acid tab was kicking in, or as if he was one of 22 contributors to another lacklustre St Kilda performance across the board.

Hickey really tried but it wasn’t great to see a ruckman drop back in defence and time their run across a pack perfectly, only to be the one that gets taken out by the bodies in the contest. No-one was helped in the middle of the ground, with the centre circle turf having obviously been replaced and still very, very soft. The bounces were for the most part quite low, and the situation became a little more ludicrous early in the third quarter when one umpire who decided to throw it up instead didn’t actually get the ball to the height of the dodgy bounces earlier on.

Not that it would have changed anything. Even when Hickey was winning the hit-outs it didn’t appear to be of much advantage. Cotchin only got 17 touches but who cares when you’ve got 22 guys making an impact in the way they do. Steele was moved from him to Dusty and continued his run of racking up decent personal numbers by being in close proximity to guys who naturally find a lot of the footy – 25 this week after 26 and 33 following Wines and Cripps in the past fortnight – but Dusty became the next in a long line of players and teams to make us look silly. An easy brush-off of Carlisle near goal to set up Cotchin in the first was ominous enough.

***

It remains an issue of this team – and I’m assuming the coaches, too – that there doesn’t really appear to be a middle ground of form or application, whether it’s within quarters, games, or weeks. We’re either playing like the team we thought we’d be at the MCG against Melbourne, with Billings, Gresham, Sinclair and Paddy all contributing handsomely, or the arse falls out en masse and there is no real way out of the stupor. Stuv can kick possibly goal of the year from ridiculous mid-air cannon, and he and Membrey battled harder than most to make sure their repeat efforts counted, but they’re just small sparks that don’t really take.

I should say, I still think Membrey is underrated – maybe not so much by Saints supporters – his body positioning when the ball is moving around him is very smart, even if just to knock on the ball in the right direction to a teammate nearby. We’re in an era in which stats and match and player data has never been so comprehensive (no shit) but things like that remain intangible, and “pressure points”, and ranking players based on SuperCoach numbers will never be an exact science, no matter how many times they’re used by Robbo on 360 or in the War Room.

There was simply nothing in it for the forwards. This was back to the toothless work of pre-three quarter time at Carrara; that Marshall finished with 15 touches, seven marks and a goal was a little bit incredible. Unsurprisingly, Battle had not much influence himself despite offering some sort of contest.

At half-time, Newnes had had just five touches, Gresham eight and Billings seven, and zero impact on the scoreboard. Gresham turned up after half time and finished with decent numbers, but all that happened when the game was done. Billings inched his way 20 touches with some neat passes forward amid his trademark spurned chances in front of goal, Sinclair was quiet, and as the stats show any creativity that we get from those guys was barely given an opportunity to be used.

Newnes and Weller appear to be playing a similar role in the front half but I don’t know how much longer Weller can keep doing whatever it is he does. Mav actually took a couple of really strong marks – something we haven’t seen for a couple of years – but how long do we keep waiting for something to happen with a bit more impact, and more consistently? Newnes has made himself a viable goal scoring option; Mav has kicked 5.7 from 12 games and I don’t know if his pressure around the front half really is so good that we simply have to have him in the team in the final part of the season, as opposed to someone like Freeman or Paton (they’re not strictly like-for-likes, obviously, but perhaps give Armo, Stuv, Sinclair etc. stints up forward as well. IDFK. Connellan?). Richo flagged changes after the game – he named Paton and Coffield and Acres in the post-match – and Mav and the club’s decision to push him through the ankle injury last year after a great 2016 has evidently done him zero favours.

Seb Ross reprised his role in defence and he keeps getting decent but he has to be carrying something?. Armo kicked a clever goal we had no right to have on the board but like most felt anonymous for middling numbers. Dunstan was fine, sort of.

I still can’t believe Richmond changed their fuckin’ song. And now a few clubs, including us, are stuck with these shitty fucking versions that were made as an afterthought to the Tigers getting theirs redone.

***

A very, very disappointing crowd put the club in the spotlight again for…being in the spotlight? The stink started with the Good Friday match and we’ve quickly become part of the “state of the game” debate because of fixturing rather than anything else. As long as people know the laws of the game committee is there to make football more attractive rather than every game a close AFLX-style shoot-out then that’s ok, but I’m sure Channel 7 will be buttering up Gil and Steve again for some more ads. Only 36,000 turned up on Saturday night for what was meant to be our biggest home crowd of the year – in 2015 there was 45,722 for 13th vs 5th, and last year 47,514 for 8th vs 4th (at half-time we were sitting in 4th spot, and the goals we gave up in the final term meant we ended he night as 7th vs 6th, as opposed to 6th vs 7th). But ffs, it’s a Friday night and it’s an excellent event; one that permeates through the atmosphere of the crowd around and within the ground before, during and after the match. I would hope it keeps a decent place in the round’s fixturing whenever it’s played in 2019.

A big part of me thinks the result itself just part of the territory that comes with a match up between 1st and 15th, particularly when your team is 15th. Of course, players will need to get up for important games, for finals, whatever it might be. Realistically, Richmond is a team looking to defend a premiership and this game has no bearing on our finals. If this exact match was played out on a Sunday at 1.10 would anyone have really been surprised? This was always a chance of happening. If you do want to put more currency into the big-game factor, then things still don’t look very good over the past couple of years.

Gerard Whateley put it pretty succinctly on Saturday morning, and it’s something that has been on display quite publicly through comments from players, coaches and officials. This club had measured itself against and based its expectations on what was a freak occurrence. This is our reality now – since Round 16 last year we’ve won six games, lost 17 and drawn one – and this is what we need to base our next move at trade and draft and list management on.

Jarryn Geary couldn’t really muster the same advocacy for us a top four team in the way Peter Summers did earlier this year, and not in the way the President and Richo defended that statement as being taken out of context. Of course you can say “if we’re consistent” then we could be better, but that’s a part of what we are. If you don’t do the good stuff consistently then the weight of numbers would suggest you’re just not that good.

We wore the same jumper as last year for the occasion, and Richmond wore their clash jumper again. So if you want to distinguish the footage of either game, in this year’s Richmond has black cuffs, and they also have the gold AFL logo.