Message me when you’re sober

By Tom Briglia

Round 3, 2019
Fremantle 3.2, 6.2, 9.2, 11.5 (71)
St Kilda 1.1, 5.3, 7.8, 9.12 (66)
Crowd: 38,227 at Optus Stadium, Sunday, April 9th at 5.20pm AEDT

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After spending all my optimism in the fallout of last week, any fanciful dreams of a 2004 or 2009-style extended run to keep hopes for the season high were pissed away as we decided to channel 2018 instead. It would have been an incredible thing for the club and its supporters just to feel what comes with a 3-0 start (although keep in mind we went 19-0 once and got nothing for it). Sunday’s loss puts a timely spotlight onto mistakes that were supposedly confined to an awful season, but were probably appearing more than we’d liked in the first couple of weeks. Sure, we very could easily have won – should have won – but this is what we’re dealing with.

All the favourites were there, opening with a slow start interstate. Never mind the Road to 2018, we need to sort out the flight to any other capital city first because we’re apparently still stepping off the plane when the ball is bounced. Ultimately, it cost us the match. Acres kicked the first, running into goal and continuing last week’s big celebrations in front of the Saints’ cheer squad, but that eventually gave way to a scoreline of 6.2 to 1.1 and an inside 50 count that at one point read 25 to six. We still ended up with more shots on goal, we still ended up losing.

Like 2018, something was a little bit wrong with everything, and Corporate Name Stadium became a festering puddle of purple goop consisting of high kicks down the line to no obvious target, haphazard long kicks into the forward 50 to no one in particular, no players at the fall of the ball, and shanked shots at goal on tap.

***

This week’s conspiracy theory held that Paul Roos was doing his good mate Ross the ex-Boss a favour by publicly criticising Fyfe and suggesting he’s not a two-way runner. Steele kept a close eye on him but that didn’t seem to really matter. He was going to be that good anyway, and Freo were still able to win being one down for a quarter and a half and without their best player.

Defensive pressure across the ground was up from the start but it was an odd opening between two teams who seemed hellbent on not wanting to score goals. Freo has now gone from 21.15 to 8.10 and 11.5, while we’ve only managed 13.7, 10.16 and 9.12. It was apparent something was off once we got the ball, Freo decided to literally kick themselves out of it and fluffed a few simple passes along the wing unforced. Sav decided to join in off half back, running off the mark and into the tenth row to give up a throw-in. Bruce, who ended up being responsible for some of our better moments, got caught between letting a goal go through and taking the mark running back with the ball on the line, but both his radar and decision making were off.

Following a flood of free kicks over the weekend, peaking with the wild below-the-knee free kick at MCG the night before to Can You Believe He Played for St Kilda Once? Jamie Cripps, I decided to say out loud in the Elsternwick RWB Satellite lounge room “I think the umpires are just gonna let everything go after last night”. Their approach had actually allowed us to get away with a couple of frees near goal already, but then Billings dropped what should have been an easy mark at the back of the centre square from a high Dockers kick forward, and in his attempt to recover the ball already on his hands and knees he gave away a free kick for you know exactly what. Complain as much as you want (rightfully, I should add – what the hell was he supposed to do when he was on the ground?), but taking the mark would have been nice.

Billings was our best player and it’s difficult to fault Bruce too, but these moments of indecision were an early warning sign that this team was prepared to worry itself out of the game.

The traditional wobbly St Kilda interstate free kicks were back, too. Well into the second quarter, Sinclair blatantly threw the ball through his legs trying to get the ball loose on the wing, and as the umpire ran in after paying the free, Newnes started pushing forward into empty space thinking it was Sinclair’s free. D-Mac had picked up the spilled (thrown) ball, and decided to go with Jill’s rules instead of those stipulated by the AFL commission, and he hit Jill directly with a perfectly weighted handpass to give away the 50-metre penalty and gift Freo a shot at goal.

***

What was apparent was everyone was pushing up far too high into defence. Where was Membrey or Bruce? This is where Battle playing up forward would have been great, given he’s arguably our most promising forward, but that thought just serves as a band-aid to what was a flawed set-up across the ground.

A rare chance to go inside 50 with a considered entry fell to Dean Kent on the forward flank, who tried getting around his opponent and fell over (yes, that simply). Freo took it away and exposed the the defensive set-up, too, as a chain of Freo players – it wouldn’t be the only time it happened – continually sucked in the next St Kilda player and left their next teammate on their own.

For the question, “Where did the effective and considered ball movement across the ground we showed in the pre-season and for enough moments to jag two questionable wins in the opening two weeks go?” the answer is annoyingly broad, as it was last year. None of this is entirely applicable without nothing Freo’s pressure across the ground, and ability to keep the the ball locked in their forward half for sustained periods while being able to absorb our own repeated entries in attack. But it was apparent early that everyone was pushing far too high into defence, and there was just no one offering anything decent ahead of the ball. No options were readily available wider for a quick switch or a change in angle. The word “composure” was used a few times over February and March, but we were back simply being more or less manic in ebbs and flows that dictated how effective both our defence and attack were. Roberton had joined Richo in the coaches’ box and “copped a spray” from Richardson after Round 1 because the defenders’ kick-ins were “boring”, but I don’t know who cops it this week for being boring everywhere.

***

Stuv missing obviously had an effect, but Freo seemed to do ok when arguably the best player in the league was taken off the ground. The centre clearance count read 17 to five at game’s end, and while the total count was a little more even – 43 to 35 – they kicked 6.2 from clearances. Hannebery might not be the recruit we hoped he would be – not for some time, at least – but something’s wrong if we’re relying that much on Stuv being there or not. The upside within this season falls on Gresham, Billings and Acres getting more time around stoppages, (even Matthew Parker was thrown in late in the game, which I didn’t mind).

At some point late in the second quarter there was a shift in aggression. Geary – one of the very few that presented well across the back half when we had the ball – almost took a hanger and managed to follow it up on the deck, and more pronounced physical efforts from Ross and Billings, to go with Bruce also going a hanger attempt, changed the tone.

We kept doing our best to mess it up when we did get a look. Gatorade Gamechanger® Membrey managed to scoot away goalside on the wing from a Freo spillage, but he spent most of the time juggling the pick up and scanning all parts of the field for options that simply won’t there. He eventually steadied and it was Bruce that presented and took a good mark on the lead, and went back and kicked the goal. Gresham started to make an too up the ground, setting up a big mark from Membrey on the goal line (and then Can You Believe He Played for St Kilda Once? Leigh Fisher tried dicking him by putting him on the angle rather than from directly in front).

Billings had been going about his business as Our New Best Player and chimed in with some clever positioning near goal took a good mark from a shanked Membrey kick at goal from 50 that was so bad it would have made more sense if it was deliberate. Brown was looking the best he has for years, and despite getting a head knock in an innocuous collision with Hogan on the wing, recovered immediately (well, quickly enough before the dizziness set in) and won the ball, and in a rare instance of a functioning forward line Gresham was front and centre when the ball landed deep in attack and kicked the goal.

But these seemed to be moments snatched rather that by-products of something larger that was well-thought-out and cleverly engineered. Too much was left to Gresham, and I think FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER I’M GOING TO SAY IT – too much was left to Billings. I think we did. We made it. We finally get to say that about super-boxer and ironic podcast punching bag Jack Billings. Another team-leading disposal count, this time 32 to go with two goals. His second, while it was a moot point ultimately, came in the kind of moment we drafted him with pick three for. Something needed to be made out of not much, and at the last possible moment in which it could still play a part in the result. And it was the one guy who’d been collecting the ball across the ground and looking the closest to comfortable all day, who again ventured deep into the forward line and made it count. We had similar moments for Richo’s mate Dave – another Round 3 match, in 2013, specifically – but six years and a Marcus Bontempelli best and fairest win in a Bulldogs premiership season later, we’ve done it. Whatever that is. But he’s good now. For now.

Gresham did get a lot of the ball again himself and he kicked a couple of goals, but when we needed class in big moments in the third quarter, none of his three shots at goal came off. That’s not a slight on him specifically, rather the ability of the team cover that. If it wasn’t going to be him, who would it be? We’re supposed to have been going to the draft for at five least five years now. Bruce loomed as the only other guy in the front half who would play the “Come with me” captain’s role, and Kent, Lonie and Parker just didn’t have the same physical presence nor presented the same opportunities seen in the first two weeks. Walters’ excellent snap goal showed what a genuinely classy player can do, and he was doing it at both ends, and they had Brandon Matera step up and kick three goals either side of three-quarter time.

Hunter Clark came incredibly close to a career highlight with a solo effort through traffic but just missed, and therefore will fit in just fine at the Saints. Bruce, Lonie, Membrey and Billings all blew shots at goal as the crazed bang-it-in-at-all-costs infected the team. Billings twice had chances at the top of the 50 metre arc to set something up but gave off to Battle and then the other disappeared into the footy aether. D-Mac worked his way up the ground and found space just outside 50 himself, but the composure had disappeared and instead of going short to the runners nearby he kicked further to to a one on three in the pocket. Bruce put in a momentarily herculean effort to trap the ball and get it out to Membrey, who probably dished out the the best handball of his life to Lonie who skipped it through from close range.

But that was it for the quarter. Gresham shat out one of his occasional belly-of-the-ball snap shots, Parker missed too, albeit as he started to a bring a little more physical presence, but the difference he brings to the team when he’s making an impact compared to when he is not is already apparent. The most royal moments, however, came with a great harassing pressure in the middle that turned the ball over and had Hunter and two runners charging into the 50, and Hunter hunter kicked it straight to Luke Ryan on our way to making him look like a hero. Thirteen marks, none contested, and Jack Steele made sure Ryan’s day would get a whole lot more special in the final moments.

Gresham topped it off with a set shot at goal on a tight but not-hideously-tight angle. In a moment made for him, the ball went directly out on the full. Never mind having all the play and beating down the door, it felt like we were crawling to three quarter time amid our own faecal matter. Freo still had a six-point lead with four less scoring shots. Billings had 27 touches, nine more than anyone else, but who really looked like lifting us out of this? Fyfe was off, but I had in my mind yet another round 3 – 2010, and how a Ross-led team was able to cover the loss of their spearhead.

***

The slow start trope appeared across the game: Freo kicked the first three goals after quarter time, and despite the momentum shifts late in the second and third quarters, kicked the opening goal in the third, and then Matera kicked two goals in the first 10 minutes of the final term, and infuriatingly after Rory Lobb swung around from a long handball receive just outside 50, lowered the eyes and pierced a neat kick to a capable player presenting, and ultimately finishing. As if it could be so fucking simple.

The momentum inevitably swung back our way but we never seemed likely to score goals until it was far too teasingly fucking late. After their captain was concussed in what was a pretty hideous few moments on the field, who else do you call when you want to make The Novelty Club look like a bunch of heroes and get Luke Ryan trending on Twitter?

Freo did their best to hand it to back to with three consecutive kicks out of defence that went on the full, but we did the exact same thing each time on the return and kept kicking it long to no-one in particular, and still no one was waiting at the fall. We just never looked like kicking a goal. I thought of Richo’s words about spurning opportunities, suggesting that while it’s frustrating, the players should consider how frustrating it must be for the opposition. Nah. This was worse.

Gresham finally found another one out the back with a few minutes left it was another goal that seemed more like a freak occurrence among Membrey and Bruce being outnumbered in the air, Jimmy Webster turning over a clear chance at finding a target in time and space, and more generally no one looking interested at crumbing a pack.

A big finish briefly loomed with three minutes left, but Kent couldn’t keep his balance in a one-on-one footrace chasing the ball trickling towards goal. Rather than attempting to get low and use his genuinely decent agility to manufacture something a bit more stable, he threw a boot at the ball as it bobbled up and it was more Brent Guerra in the 2004 Preliminary Final than anything else.

The proverbial handy point secured, sure, and we still had a couple of minutes to stuff it up. At long last, with 70 seconds left, Jack Steele found the ball in space in the forward pocket. A chance to size up the goals, and a chance to size up the options in front of goal. He went the safe option – a 25-metre pass to either one of Jack Newnes or Blacres 15 metres out, directly in front. All Steele had to do was drop it in the space immediately in fucking front of them. Instead, he somehow engineered a high ball that opened up the door to crown Luke Ryan as the latest player made to look like a king by the St Kilda Football Club. Appropriately, Ryan ferociously charged into that contest and the ball was thumped away, and he took Newnes with him. It was what the moment deserved.

From a broader perspective, Billings’ goal with eight seconds left was nothing more than a rude St Kilda-style tease, and the players decided to draw it out by accidentally putting a seventh player in the forward 50 for the final bounce. Freo won the clearance.

***

Great effort? Brave? Wasteful? Spirited? It can be all of those things. Have we reset our expectations since last year? Are we on a refreshed timeline in which Richo’s previous years in charge don’t quite count in the way they did through 2018? That’s fine when you’re 2-0, and would have been a lot more fine (for a week, anyway) if we were 3-0. But this loss hurts, especially when you’re pissing a win away by making the same mistakes that defined one of the darkest years in this club’s modern era.

Yes it’s Round 3, yes there’s a long way to go, and we’re in another week of the perennial struggle in a supporter’s mind of balancing the unknown of the future with the consistent wasting of opportunities and time over 146 years. It’s a waste of four points (we’re still early enough in the season for that to actually matter), and it’s a wasted opportunity for the players to go interstate and show they’ve learned something not just from last year generally, but from previous trips interstate, and to come back with four points, and to experience what that would do for the group on an intangible level.

We fell over the line against the lowest-profile and possibly the lowest-regarded team in history, and then outlasted a team that until Friday night looked a whole lot more like us last year than one of the biggest clubs in the competition looking to win Premiership #17. I don’t know how good or not good Freo is, but they lost to Gold Coast by three points last week after themselves looking like the best team in Round 1, and now Gold Coast are 2-1, and the Bombers beat Melbourne, and I think I can safely say that the more footy I’ve seen this year the less of an idea I have of what is going on. Maybe we just couldn’t keep getting away with a lot of what happened over the last couple of weeks. A Sunday night is bleaker after a loss like that, and a goal was the only difference between another week of “anything can happen”, and a heavier week of “a lot less things will probably happen”. As supporters, it’s time to get our hands dirty again.

  • Campbell

    Great write up Tom.

    We seem incapable of putting teams to the sword. It’s like we wobble as soon as we get close to a lead. Teams can smell it. A real hallmark of ‘Cho’s tenure.

    Re Kent – there’d want to be a whole lot more than what he’s offered thus far. Gee whiz.

  • Tom Briglia

    Kent was very quiet on Sunday. He wasn’t the only smaller forward guilty of that, and any talk of the forward line brings the rest of the team and ball movement into it etc. etc. etc., but it’s been a pretty lean return over the first three weeks. Team selection and team response are going to be very interesting this week.