Work the dancefloor

By Tom Briglia

Round 5, 2019
Melbourne 3.3, 4.5, 4.8. 7.13 (55)
St Kilda 4.1, 7.2, 12.5, 15.5 (95)
Crowd: 35,558 at the MCG, Saturday, April 20th at 4.35pm

Version 2

A warm sunny day of waiting around in the stands at the MCG usually means being on the precipice of a big vom ahead of a final, but after opening to the season and unfamiliar positivity through the week, mid-afternoon on Saturday felt like a massive tease. I’d ended up wearing my membership scarf despite the conditions. How else would people know who I go for? They need to to know I’m paid-up, too. I’m not here just to wind up Melbourne folk, I’m here to have an in-game meltdown about the mighty Saints.

With the Bulldogs and Richmond saluting in the past few years it has left, aptly, the Demons and the Saints isolated with long-term premiership droughts of 55 and 53 years respectively, and we’ve locked in a Diet Caffeine-Free version of the St Kilda and Geelong rivalry of last decade. Melbourne and St Kilda could still build to something greater in the coming years; I very facetiously posted last week a photo of a (seemingly) packed MCG from two years ago with the Saints in the clash jumper and referred to it as a photo from the 2020 Grand Final. My theory is that Melbourne would finish top and we might get into the four and make our way through, and we would be playing in our clash jumper as we had to in 2010. Given Saturday’s game was played in the Saturday twilight slot at the MCG and with that jumper arrangement, I might suggest this was a training run for the 2023 Grand Final, as Tim Worner continues to decide how and when footy is played, has eliminated defenders from the game and ensured the Grand Final has pre-match, quarter-time, half-time, three-quarter time and post-match entertainment, and has Perth’s late 80s USA fetish light show and fireworks going off after the final siren to ruin the moment that supporters have been waiting their whole lives to experience and embrace.

But we had to get through Round 5 of 2019 first.

***

Melbourne showed a lot of fight that they’d been criticised for lacking against the Swans. Given where both clubs were coming from, it felt like too much of an ask for a club like St Kilda to go 4-1 while the closest thing we have to a rival went 1-4 as a result. I said last week any coincidences typically are weighted to something saddening or morose when it comes to St Kilda. I remember going into Robert Harvey’s club games record-breaking game in Round 7 against the Cats in 2006, thinking a win was just too far because it meant the Cats would have gone 2-5. Not on our watch.

We were due to really stink up the joint too. Four games, three wins and a five-point loss, and a higher-profile game to be exposed in, as the young Lions endured on Thursday night.

In another sign that everyone at the club cares again, any supporters who got there early enough would have seen the group meeting on the MCG turf, with the players, emergencies and coaches. Any runaway thoughts during the week of the Saints being “back” were thrown to reality when the Dees ominously took out the first clearance and hit Preuss on the lead for the opener in the first minute;

Preuss backed up the two early goals against the Swans last week with another pair that bookended the first quarter. Our defence had held up well for much of the quarter, but let one slip in the final seconds and Preuss nailed a massive kick from outside 50 on the run.

The inside 50 count read 17-6 at quarter time, and we’d done well going the other way to kick 4.1 from that. Membrey had two; one from close range and another from a strong contested mark on 50, and an excellent set shot kick that still remains a St Kilda novelty despite the broader changes in fortune so far this year. Kent’s first two set shots at goal brought his royal shank run to three (although he set up Membrey’s first). For the third consecutive match Acres kicked an opening quarter goal before making his presence felt across the middle of the ground later on, while a slick gather from Our New Best Player Jack Billings and a long kick inbound to Newnes found Kent in the goalsquare for an easy nerve-calmer. He literally kicked it over the Melbourne cheer squad and into the top deck of the Southern Stand, and watching back on the replay Dwayne Russell actually played it down with an “Puts into row 15” rather than a “THAT COULD BE BALL”-style shout.

While our best two individual defenders have been taken out of the team – add the captain to that for a month or so now – the number of entries coming in from Melbourne’s midfield threatened to break that down. That wasn’t unexpected; our midfield remains a concern on paper and Jack Steven was understandably rusty in his return. Never mind our own efficiency going forward, that counts for fark all if you can’t get the footy and we didn’t look anywhere near it over the first several minutes of the second quarter.

While the broader Melbourne re-emergence has aligned with our Road to 2018(*2020), the 2014 draft has loomed as a flashpoint. Our Paddy, promising, improving but banged up and maybe done, and their bullocking Petracca and brave Brayshaw. Regardless of what you think of the draft, Brayshaw is clearly having the best impact of the three. Watching him go around in the helmet as a permanent marker of where he’s been, and continue to will himself to contests, is the same I feel watching Paddy now. (Newnes vacuously ripped the helmet from his head and threw it away in the first quarter, but I also secretly enjoyed it from the perspective of watching this team’s attitude and expression evolve.)

As well as getting plenty of the ball, Brayshaw had kicked a classy goal off a few steps from 45 in the first quarter, and then two slick combinations with Petracca within moments of each other early in the second were rather sinister. A bullet pass from the top of the 50 arc to Petracca’s lead came first, but he wildly sliced the kick from 30 metres out. It was fine that he missed that one, sure, but it only looked like their mids would keep giving them options; a few moments later Brayshaw ran onto the ball hard up against the boundary in the pocket and quickly chipped a curling pass right into the middle of three Demons. Petracca took the mark and didn’t make a mistake, and Melbourne had worked their way into the lead.

***

Just as Hawthorn did not kick a goal following what appeared to be a moment of supremacy established the previous week, from that moment Melbourne’s goals column was held hostage by defence headed by Wilkie, Battle, Geary and Paton. Melbourne didn’t kick one following that Petracca shot – five minutes into the second quarter – until Melksham’s two minutes into the final term.

One of the components of the Saints this year has been the ability to change the dynamic of the game when challenged, and not in the way that happened so often last year in which the game was most likely over and Richo would front a press conference saying he was please with the way we played out another tepid game.

But three times in the three weeks now we’ve wrestled the ascendancy from the opposition. There was no obvious moment in which it “started”; the team defence slowly had started to press down on the throat before you knew it had a stranglehold. While the hit-out count remained expectedly lopsided, the pressure in close from Steele, Ross, Steven and even Marshall brought in the games of guys like Billings, Gresham and Sinclair (who had a double-page spread in the Herald Sun that morning for some reason). A period of more than 11 minutes saw just two behinds scored, before a rush of players close to goal ended with Lonie dribbling one through, signalling the start of an eight-goal run.

***

A couple of stats-heavy articles during the week had armchair clowns like myself thinking we were Kingy in the War Room. We’ve gone from 17th to fourth in the competition for marks, and from first in the competition (more than 40%) to 17th for playing on after marks (just over 205 going into Saturday). Long kicks were up 12th to fourth to bring in the pressure aspect of the game, but that can also look like the 2018-style kicks down the line to nothing or to ill-positioned forwards with no support at ground level. As we saw in the better moments of the pre-season, setting up deeper across the ground became much more apparent and numbers were readily available for a switch or kick forward; either way we were able to create more options for the player with the ball, and the decisions could be made with more purpose. On the flipside, Richo mentioned during the week that “we’re not wanting to be as slow and as deliberate” as we’d been, and we ended up with a play-on percentage closer to last year’s numbers, and this was helped by positioning and hard work of the runners around the play.

It also meant that when we were forced to defend, there were more players readily back, and Wilkie, Battle, Webster and Brown were able to shut down any higher balls, and Bonus Human Ben Paton, Geary, Savage and Newnes were positioned to work the ball away. During the extended trajectory one of particular long, high ball into Melbourne’s forward line in the third quarter, I caught myself expecting the St Kilda defence to shut it down. And that there would be players at the fall of the ball who would be willing and able to neatly find their way out of the traffic and to safety. When was the last time you had implicit trust in the St Kilda team you were watching, if only for a moment?

***

Three consecutive goals in a dominant third term all came from a similar move and said a lot about the day. I don’t write this blog to tell you what we can all watch on the replay, but for my own sake needs documentation should this day become the landmark I (we) hope it does.

The first came from the kick-out after Geary’s crunching effort to force a behind as Hunt ran onto the ball at the top of the Melbourne goal square. The act means yet another test of a senior player in defence missing, but they left some very clear instructions on their way out. Webster’s long kick-out had four Saints already streaming off the half-back flank on the southern stand side and Ross steadied and handballed back to Lonie. John sized up his options and showed off his underrated field kicking with a clean pass to the running Kent, who was in the throes of the kind of game circumstance can draw out of a player. Long was waiting for him further ahead, 60 out on the boundary line, and had enough space to move onto the right and kick to the pocket where Bruce took a very strong mark overhead under pressure from Frost, and with little margin for error given he was on the boundary line. In another welcome set shot triumph, he stepped around the corner onto his left and curled the ball in.

Melbourne’s next foray forward was interrupted by Blacres running back with the flight and enjoying the magic of outstretched arms. The ball was taken up the MCC side and met with another strong overhead mark, this time from Parker. Realising the number of Saints set up behind and laterally, he wisely gave it off to Webster for Webster to kick long across the ground to Wilkie. Sav was running past and kicked to Paton on the opposite half-back flank, with Acres running for him next down the line. Sav could have gone to Acres in the first place, but kicking to Paton drew Viney away from Acres and to Paton – as well as Paton’s direct opponent Spargo – and it meant Acres was now out on his own. Steele was nearby with Melksham, who moved to Acres, Steele got the ball and his kick found Long again wide near the 50 metre arc, and this time Long went for goal himself. I said last week that his quick, clinical snap goal in the first quarter looked like the product of a good team would do, even if it was just one player’s act. This was all of that and more – including the audacity to have the shot at all. At that point (courtesy of catching Gary Lyon’s comments on the replay), we’d had 17 shots – five hadn’t scored – from 23 inside 50s.

Completing the trilogy was a very happy Dean Kent, and again from a chain featuring Ben Long. Parker, Paton (twice), Savage and Marshall exchanged short passes from a shallow Melbourne entry that hit the ground, and Geary saw Other GOAT Wilkie moving for the pass out wide. His kick was good enough and Acres again took a mark under heat, and Long was running past. The handball hit him and instead of going short to Gresh or Stuv he kicked long into pocket into the path of Kent, who ran onto it and burned his man cutting the angle in something of a cross between Adam Schneider’s goals in the 2008 Semi Final and the 2010 Preliminary Final, each time marking a team making its move.

The 2009 and 2010 teams are easy reference points because they were the last genuinely decent St Kilda teams, but there are a lot of aspects across the ground that physically and logistically appear similar. This isn’t a team built on the direct, fast-paced ball movement that the Geelong side of that time flaunted, but rather pressure and contested possession. This looks like something from the Ross Lyon school of reducing the opposition to a staggering, wheezing husk.

***

Bruce is creating a habit of stepping up and creating a moment for himself, and then making the most of it. Important leads, marks and set shots in the past couple of weeks when each were at a premium were followed on Saturday with the mark in the pocket, and then to put the cream on the quarter with another straight kick from another overhead mark on the lead from a difficult Stuv tumble punt that threatened anything from a half-volley to a rude falcon.

Last Monday’s Robbo’s Monday Hero Callum Wilkie is the new GOAT, following in Blacres’ footsteps as randomly anointed GOAT. He plays somewhere between Jason Blake and Sam Fisher in the air and moves onto his left like James Gwilt, a patchwork of more easy reference points that have made him recognisable but also a bizarre novelty. In what dimension did we end up with someone like him, not to mention the circumstances ?

The same can be said of Matthew Parker, who with Long forms a dangerous pairing across the forward half. Both bring edges to a team that flipped between bored and anxious last year. Lonie and Long were barely sighted through that season for different reasons and almost feel like new recruits – not to mention Bruce missing effectively the entire year – and with Kent and Parker our forward line is a very new entity.

***

Seb Ross last week warned (rather cheerily, given it was after a tight win) there would be more close games this year. Perhaps three of the four previous results had a lot to do with our goal kicking accuracy; Saturday is what it looks like when the goal kicking accuracy is there, and in each of Rounds 2, 3 and 4 we had more scoring shots. For all of the domination and the decent highlights reel that Saturday produced, we never quite put them away, although bombing it long to forwards looks okish when the opposition doesn’t look capable of a clean string of possessions. It’s very easy and very tempting to get swept up in any positive media commentary around the Saints right now. Robbo’s Monday Hero (Callum Wilkie and, this week, Richo), the 360 dedicated chat in which Gerard talked about how we’re playing a “sustainable” style of footy that shares elements with recent successful teams; news reports about Jarryn Geary’s injury as if it might impact on the AFL season rather than just our own; Caro talking on 3AW about the club holding up its end on its pre-season promises; the general reporting around the newspapers.

There will be lulls too – Parker, Battle, Long, Wilkie, Paton and Marshall have all played less than 20 games and will get tired, and the team will experience the natural ebbs and flows that all do over the distance of one season. But a demarcation line has been drawn. This is how we play now. There might be something beyond just this week. Something more sustainable.

***

As per usual, don’t rely on the people and organisations with the endless money and resources to get shit right. The stadium PA started playing the club song (you know, the tacky, watered-down cover version that no-one asked for) before Jack Billings had taken his shot after the siren. The operator (not sure if that’s the actual term) then cut the song, and then faded it back in really clumsily following the kick. It diluted what should have been a really excellent moment for the club with some awkwardness.

So leave it to the organic and the spontaneous and the genuine. Hearing the St Kilda song break out late in the game through three separate sections of the MCG – the cheer squad, the Punt Road/Southern Stand pocket, and in the MCC – expressed and broke open optimism for the journey the club is on more than music after goals or a re-recorded song ever will. After the slightly-turned-down club song played after the game (once it got going again), the supporters at the city end started the singing the song themselves. The last time I saw that at the MCG was on a Saturday night – in the first year of this decade – because we would be playing in a Grand Final seven days later. At the end of the 2010s, several generations of St Kilda fans still don’t really know what a premiership means or how it changes your life. What we look to from the club is reflective of what we hope for in our day-to-day lives: that there might be a better time ahead. Billings fittingly finished another best-on-ground performance with that post-siren goal, and the roar as it sailed through might have been from the club itself.

  • Campbell

    Great write up Tom.

    There are just so many positives that i don’t know where to start. I’ll start and end with this, we are playing like a team that knows exactly what we’re supposed to be doing, how to do it and when to do it.

    It’s bloody refreshing.

    You’re right; we’ll tire and fade. We’ll suffer more injuries and probably go down in some close games. But we’ll take that every day of the week. I’d forgotten how it felt to approach every game in the season (so far) expecting to have an even money chance at winning. It’s exciting and the nervous energy and tension reminds me of ’09 and ’10.

  • Tom Briglia

    “We are playing like a team that knows exactly what we’re supposed to be doing, how to do it and when to do it.”

    I think you nailed it. There was a real certainty about everything that happened on Saturday. Watching the replay feels like some sort of time warp – I said it in the post that I would hope this becomes a landmark match, it feels like we went into the future a little bit. Fark.