The distance seemed sure enough

By Tom Briglia

Round 20, 2018
St Kilda 4.2, 7.4, 7.9, 9.14 (68)
Western Bulldogs 0.5, 6.6, 14.12, 15.13 (103)
Crowd: 20,748 at Etihad Stadium, Saturday, August 4th at 7.25pm

Version 2

For the first time in VFL/AFL history, five games in the same round were decided by one goal or less, and they all came within the six games played over Friday and Saturday. Of course, of course, of course, it would be the Bulldogs and St Kilda that were the exception, and of course, of course, of course it would be St Kilda that would be the ones wiped off the park, and by a team only half a game ahead of them.

It’s worth noting that none of those games had been played with a roof overhead. Maybe the state of the game talk carried a little more weight for us throughout much of the year because we were used to watching actual garbage, but I feel like the standard has picked up as teams increasingly try and time their run at the pointy end.

Nevertheless, get out of our way – we had some St Kilda stuff to do. Hopefully Steve Hocking didn’t go to this game of the six, because the garbage was back, and he’d missed Essendon and Hawthorn to watch Coburg and Werribee as the AFL continued to use the VFL as its adult toy testing department.

The Bulldogs used to be our sparring partners in one-premiershipdom; red, white and black and red, white and blue united across opposite sides of the city by ageing premiership footage, ageing premiership heroes, and ageing tall tales of those respective solitary glory days. The Bulldogs’ on-field fall since their wonderful 2016 premiership is still safely contained within the shadows of that triumph, and no one should be putting it past them to achieve something like what Hawthorn did over the several seasons following 2008.

Looking at their fans around the ground before the game, it still feels strange that the quiet empathy and sympathy I had are mostly gone. They’re more of a curiosity; these are people that lived a dream so similar to ours, and so recently. What does it feel like to have seen the impossible?

It’s getting lonelier at the bottom. While Sydney, Geelong and Richmond have also ended their lengthy droughts in the early part of this century, Melbourne is looking a decent chance over the next few years to leave us as the undisputed worst and most tragic club – not just in our VFA history and of the VFL/AFL, but for everyone following the game now.

***

Saturday kicked off the 2018 Farewell Residency at the Corporate TV set, featuring our terrible re-worked version of the song and much-appreciated lack of music following goals. Part of that whole faecal discharge of changing the club songs was that the AFL, clearly directed by no actual understanding of why the songs are what they are, also pissed away the chance to bring back the grandiosity of “Sons of the ‘Scray” (and did the same with the Lions’ song).

It’s obviously not the point, but Freeman potentially dominating news headlines became Freeman as part of Comeback Round, which starred Alex Johnson and featured cameos from Aaron Vandenberg and Brodie Smith. Offering Freeman up to Channel Nine’s Monday night news and then mentioning him on official count social media early in the week were the giveaways.

Anticipating a Novelty Bag ahead of a shambolic loss, shame on me; anticipating a Novelty Bag twice ahead of yet another shambolic loss, shame on me still, really, for expecting anything to change after all of those “we’ll work on it” lines in post-match press conferences this year from Richo. He followed that up on 360 with, as well calling it embarrassing, pointing out twice that we had seven scoring shots to the Dogs’ two in the last quarter, again running with the competed well late in the game line, well and truly after it was gone. Lethlean guaranteeing his role on 3AW the next morning may have already gone to his head.

Marshall was out for some reason and so it was down to Battle and Membrey to anchor the forward line, but Battle followed Paddy’s lead and got concussed early, so it was down to Membrey with some help from Hickey, but Hickey absurdly injured a hamstring tendon, came off, got on the bike for a bit, and was made to come back on and stand in the goal square given Webster was sore and Freeman had been out for five years. He could hardly move.

Acres was being passed around from the ruck to the backline to the forward, to the wing and vaguely through the midfield, and with Carlisle rucking too, Newnes loomed as the only other option as a focal point in the forward line. His second goal in the final term masked a performance in which he’d only had six touches to three-quarter time, and finished with nine.

It all started OK. Lonie, Billings and Gresham all had decent numbers by quarter time, although even at the moment Lonie was far too nonchalant in his celebration of his second goal, which took us to six goals against the Dogs’ one. Lonie was set to back up his good game last week with two early goals and plenty of involvement with and without the ball, but he got a case of the Paddy McCartins (the not-goal kicking one) yet again and couldn’t get that third goal. In fact, all three of the “high half-forwards” finished with decent numbers, but you can never trust teams in these stages of development to build nor hold a decent lead. Things started leaking in the second quarter and I’m not sure if anyone even looked like they wanted to do anything about it.

***

Billings is now specifically a player you don’t want to have taking a shot on goal, and also appears to be suffering the three-goal phobia – only three times in his 82 games has scored three goals in a game, and he’s kicked at last three behinds in a game 11 times since the start of 2017. Saturday night was absurdly the fourth time he’s kicked 1.3 in his past 21 games. As we saw on Saturday night, he’ll miss them whichever way – set shot drop punt, on the run, set shot with the step-around snap from boundary line in the pocket. He got far too excited about finally kicking a goal; an accident on the line in the extended junk time period that may well have actually clipped Geary’s boot on the way through. He pleaded far too much with footballer turned The Footy Show Grand Final Edition fodder turned goal umpire David Rodan for a review and rightfully got his way, but his celebration showed how much weight he is again carrying on his shoulders. He would be flat as fuck if they credit that one to Geary (for now it’s still his according the AFL and major publications that still exist).

It has to be noted he’s upped his physicality in the past couple of weeks. A couple of big chase-down tackles in the first half were uncharacteristic, but pleasantly so. He finished with a very commendable 27 touches by the end, but they were a battling 27 that ultimately didn’t make a huge impact on the game.

Which brings us to the crux of the night – while Billings was doing, or trying to do all of this, the Bulldogs had the Bont running riot when the game was there to be won, kicking four goals in a massive third quarter in which he continuously put himself in the right place and had no troubles finishing the job. We ran out with picks 3, 10, 18 and 19 of the 2013 draft, but the Bulldogs had pick 4 – and their number 4 – and that short period after last year in which we thought Billings was, for that moment, the better player and in a club that might be going somewhere feels like a very different time and place. Marcus Bontempelli, specifically the kind of player we lack – a classy, smooth big-bodied midfielder than can kick goals -will go down in history as the best and fairest winner of the team that broke one of the game’s most famous premiership droughts.

As this hamstring-tendon injury affected game hobbled to a finish, complete with a bonus unnecessary score review after what was a comprehensive ricochet of JJ’s hand, at the SCG Paddy’s brother Tom – taken with the pick before our second-rounder last year – kicked a freak winner for a team playing for a top four spot.

***

If the thunder, lightning, gale-force winds and monsoonal rains of the 2018 shitstorm are our manic shanks forward to no one, and Billings and Membrey repeatedly missing shots at goal, then eye of the storm is a meek, en masse surrender that has cost us a game of footy in a matter of minutes, as opposed to providing any sort of relief to re-tape the windows (read: the chance to actually control the tempo of the game). From the 14.28-minute mark of the second quarter, when Lin Jong kicked the Bulldogs’ second, to the 28.50 mark of the third – 43 minutes and 40 seconds of footy, time-on included – the Dogs kicked 13.6 to 1.6.

Maybe something like that was to be expected when you’ve told three assistant coaches during the week that they’ve effectively been sacked, and still need to front up for a meaningless month of footy that won’t enhance their CV. Richo looked the flattest I can remember him, and perhaps the angriest, in the post-match press conference. Words used like “unacceptable”, which also featured in the Corporate Sponsor Members’ Message, were followed up by “really, really unacceptable” by Simon Lethlean on 3AW the morning after.

“Really wreckless with the footy” was also used very aptly by Richo, with “wreckless” an appropriate term for this club’s 145-year history. “A really weak performance by our team and by our footy club today”; “It’s pretty hard to be competitive when you only have one strong, consistent midfielder, in Seb Ross”. Richo appeared to be getting sick of his own lines, but during his weekly 360 grilling by Robbo – who has strangely become a de facto ally for the Sack Richo camp – reverted back to talking up how we had more scoring shots than the Bulldogs in the final quarter.

***

Seb Ross isn’t going to pick up a team and carry them with him, and I don’t know if he’s the type to ever turn a game. He might be our next captain though. Not sure if you can pencil that it in based on Saturday night’s game or not, but 40 disposals and three goals was on paper the best output in his career and one of the better individual performances from a Saint in an awful season. His disposal this year has been unconvincing, and long with the use of his acceleration through traffic has been down on last year, but his ball use was better I guess.

Richo parking him in the back half for the final quarter and a bit was bemusing, but I think that was more to do with the game being well and truly over and a chance for Coffield, Freeman, et al to try a few different positions while our forward line was out injured.

Freeman clearly had several extra gears to play with. For all of the supporters (me included) screaming out for a Freeman debut, Richo’s comments that he wasn’t quite “letting go” with his body rang true throughout the night. And rightfully so if your next five years was written off but a mid-range kick along the wing in a pre-season match. At no point did he even look like he got beyond 80% capacity.The optimist left in me think that if anything, that reflects well on where his career could go. They parked him out on the broadcast wing throughout the first quarter, and he was the widest player on the ground the entire time, but ended up coming off half-back and into the forward line a little more, and a more centrally.

***

The noise coming from the club after the match – Lethlean, Richo and Ross; official, coach, and player – was that injuries don’t particularly matter if you’re going to play so meekly. Things had started so nicely but I’ve barely addressed them here because it feels so…irrelevant? Yet again we trotted out the up/down en masse performance, with no real leadership, nor clear directive, nor effort when the game started to turn against us. Newnes had six touches to three-quarter time, Armo was being played off half-back, Brown and Carlisle couldn’t do much about anything, but this was the worst second-half team in the competition.

Lethlean let a few things out on 3AW, namely that “we’re in the market for line coaches and development coaches”, and that Danny Sexton does a “pretty good job” and almost certainly won’t be going anywhere. What was notable – although maybe not a surprise, given other comments coming from the club this year – was his backing of Richo. “We need to support Richo, not blame him”, he said, and specifically mentioned the next “12 months”, on the day that Barrett revealed the break clause is more to do with 2019 than this year. Whether you or I like it or not, unless something weird happens over the next few weeks, that’s probably what we’re dealing with.

***

 Every once in a while when I’ve got a bit of time to dick around on YouTube, I’ll be caught in a loop of watching excellent uploads of the Bulldogs’ 2016 finals campaign. Caleb Daniel walking into goal on the final siren of the Semi Final, as his teammates line up behind him because they know the siren is about to go; the JJ run off half-back in the final quarter of the Preliminary Final that finished with Bontempelli striding into goal and putting them in front; Stringer out the back settling and kicking across to the safe hands of Tory Dickson in the final seconds in front of full bays of Bulldogs fans; and the Bulldogs song after the final siren of the Grand Final that ends as the camera sits on Luke Beveridge with Bontempelli.