Out the flame

By Tom Briglia

Round 7, 2019
GWS Giants  8.2, 9.4, 13.6, 18.6 (114)
St Kilda 2.1, 5.4, 7.8, 10.10 (70) 
Crowd: 12,633 at UNSW Canberra Oval, Saturday, May 4th at 1.45pm

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Bob Murphy likes to use the term “rhythm” when it comes to describing the day-to-day and week-to-week machinations of a season. What the AFL has done superbly well is maintain that a season’s journey jerks and wanders and dreams and terrifies on the way to one very specific week, event, life experience, which is Grand Final Day.

By demarcation of hemispheres and seasons and the Gregorian calendar we can neatly attribute moving from the hope emerges as we do from a summer stupor into a new year, designated with a still-fresh new number that will be branded in some part of our pattern-seeking mammal minds with a season’s journey confined entirely within it.

The re-emergence of the broader world from lazy sun into the more comfortable conditions of Autumn gives way to plumbing the depths of the season in those cold, dark, isolating days in a Concrete Disney Store or in the swirling wind at the MCG. The weather turns again and spring springs for those who toiled hardest and structured up most effectively and efficiently, with the brighter days gesturing towards the promise of a new way of life should you salute at the end September.

May is typically when we find ourselves settling in to the rhythm of the season. Sample sizes of each club are big enough to get some idea of a bottoms, potential, and prospects for the year. Matches begin to emerge as season-shaping, assuming all four points are equal, while others are already designated as dead rubbers. Unseasonably, eerily warm weather was hanging around in Melbourne, but by the weekend it was feeling like late autumn again. Warm showers are warmer, and the comfort foods that help us deal with the cold are back. Three-star meats are in demand.

***

 By quarter time we were cannoning towards a 2014 season arc redux, via a 2018-style anxiety and boredom-induced on-field redux. Richo’s first season began with wins against the the-then lowly Demons and GWS, and a raft of new guys – Eli, Billings, Dunstan – brought some reminder of what is living was like to a club in the throes of wild depression. A dramatic Saturday night win against Essendon in Round 5 took us to 3-2 with the winless Lions ahead in New Zealand the following week, which turned out like this. One week later, on a Saturday afternoon at a sodden MCG, we lost to Hawthorn by 145 points. Four years after a decade-long journey ended short of the summit, St Kilda delivered its 27th wooden spoon.

Five years and one day, a failed Road to 2018, and several awful injuries to key personnel later, our 2019 season was in danger of falling away completely.

We’ve followed up our most comprehensive, optimism-inducing performance in several years with two uninspired outings copy-pasted from a season that was supposed to mark a “Hey, let’s not do that again” point for this club. The quarter-time scoreline of 8.2 to 2.1 didn’t reflect how hard we were working to make a mess of our own efforts, and GWS looked like a team keen to hand out the 100-plus point smackings in return for the string of pantsings they received in their formative years. Those included a 128-point belting from ourselves, which barring a bemusing third quarter should have been by some distance the biggest winning margin of our 146-year history. Even beyond the $12 million debt, there’s always something to pay back at Moorabbin.

AFL Corp FC is again the premiership threat it promised to be when its parent company earlier this decade put most of the best young footballers on a direct flight to Blacktown. Charcoal for the suit, white for the shirt, orange for that on-trend colour flourish. They are a business and they mean business. They trade in wins and losses and TV ratings.

You wouldn’t have noticed they were missing Kelly and Whitfield and Davis, and that Jeremy Cameron’s shoulder is still dodgy, and that Dylan Shiel actually plays for a different club now. You would have noticed that we were missing Steven, Roberton, Carlisle, Geary, and Paddy, as well as Lonie, and that Webster did an owies to his hand. The injuries appear to take a much greater toll when we resort to 2018-style Saints Footy. The care and method we showed off against the Dees that is far more injury-proof has disappeared, and two things come to mind very quickly. Firstly, this team is still effectively giving up games interstate in the first quarter; secondly; and, the team has again wilted after a week of positive attention – see Round 17 of 2017 onwards. Throughout 2018 that Richmond win was seen as a calling card for what the team was capable of, but it wasn’t what was normal. It was a freak event. The footy that was described as “sustainable” two weeks ago is gone. That’s not normal anymore, not when three out of seven games have been played so bored and anxiously.

***

Not sure if it technically counts but for the first time since Round 22 of 2008 – the last home and away game of the season, in which we beat Essendon by 108 points after a string of ridiculous results across the weekend saw us trip fantastically into the top four – we wore our clash jumper with home socks. Both teams had a patterning on their socks acknowledging relationships with Soldier On, so this curio might have an asterisk to it, but I’m a sucker for mostly-white jumpers with dark or coloured shorts and/or dark or coloured socks; see the St Kilda teams of the 1940s and 1950s.

It represents another jumper against the Giants; we were the first team they wore their current clash jumper against in 2016, and in our first match against them we wore the members’ thank you jumper, AKA a newspaper. Extra points to Jonathan Marsh in his St Kilda debut for running around with his socks up, although they’d gone down after half-time.

***

A sense of considered game plan with vague results was apparently early. Wide stoppages in the front half, deeper entries, but it was apparent the forward line was disjointed. Marsh looked a little lost at full forward early on. When we play like this, who doesn’t? More pointedly, whose fault is it? Something is slightly wrong with everything; the ball isn’t won in close enough, there isn’t enough movement around the ball or at the fall of the ball; the disposal going forward isn’t clean enough; there isn’t enough movement up the ground.

When they weren’t walking it out of the centre themselves, the Giants just needed us to physically move the Australian Rules football into their defence before they breezed from one end of the ground to other, giving some variation to their training drills. We were being dicked by a Himmelberg for the second week in a row, and Finlayson was toying with Wilkie and providing and an effective foil for Cameron who was making a mockery of our key position stocks, or us in general, really. While Brown’s omission was a curious one, I don’t know how much of a difference that would have made to the game. But if for whatever weird weird reason you were hellbent on making Darragh feel uncomfortable, there are more efficient ways of doing it than upending the team’s defensive stocks, putting him on a flight to Canberra and making him play on the country’s best key forward.

Like we did in Round 1, he and Wilkie simply couldn’t provide enough pure defensive grit or grunt or whatever the fuck you want to call it on their own. Wilkie ended up on Cameron himself, but I don’t think that’s quite either of their roles in the first place, and both are better when Brown is in the team.

***

In the way that the trajectory of the Fremantle, Hawthorn and Melbourne games slowly turned, GWS goals became scarce in the second quarter. Marsh’s aggression was starting to impact the play, rare composure was shown by Acres to hold on to the ball running through the pocket and then give off to Parker his second out of our three goals.

Apprentice Captain Seb might have been trying a little too hard if anything. Commendable, but frustrating when he’s getting caught trying to do too much or pull off one extra move with the footy several times. He put in a great captain’s miss as a lack of class and leadership started to tell. Gresh put in one of his worst games; he very uncharacteristically looked like he was trying to kick the ball too hard, and if he wasn’t, then he was rushing his kicks, Bruce was nowhere (for fuck’s sake, if he’s injured, don’t play him) and Billings was back to his sad 2018 form.

Some big efforts from Marsh yielded 1.1 and a very sweet celebration, and Marshall got 50 for a 50 after a huge mark going back with the flight at half-back and kicked the goal. Marshall might be our most important player at the moment. We’ve seen the difference of him being in the team and not being in the team back-to-back now; there is an extra body putting on serious pressure at ground level, he positions himself smartly and holds onto marks, and his skills – both by hand and boot – are actually quite slick. His first major contribution to the game was completely missing the bounce of a wayward Finlayson kick deep into attack that bounced through for a goal, but he was one of the few guys that played a genuinely good game, rather than just upping their output as the game wore on.

Communication is key these days and Richo wanted to bring a personal touch so came down to the boundary line, and Seb Ross have the Apprentice Captain’s orders at half-time before the team came off the ground. GWS had been subdued, but if you thought 1.2 to 3.3 in the quarter wasn’t reward enough then I hope something came up and you missed the second half.

***

Parker was a few centimetres away from a second consecutive three-goal bag in as many weeks, but there’s probably not too much weight to give to his poster other than what the fuck else are you expecting from St Kilda more broadly. Sure, it would have got us within 10 points and with all the momentum, but when we play the way we did it’s just a matter of time before it saps away the X-factor and the aggression. Did you see what we were actually doing with all the play either of side of that? Were the long, rushed kicks into attack to outnumbered stationary forwards the plan?

GWS went up the other end after Parker’s miss, Cameron marked in front of Wilkie and got a 50-metre penalty and began a run of four goals. Bed kicking is bad footy. There are a lot ways to play footy that could be described as bad, and we’ve made this manic garbage our own.

Vaguely more positively, how the fuck did we end up with Parker and Wilkie? Their games deserved better than to be plonked right in its inflection point. In what dimension do we pluck them out of the state leagues and have them play the way they have from the start? I don’t know what our season would look like without them in the team this year, nor how we’re feeling about the club beyond just 2019.

The quarter was highlighted by trademark moments such as Seb really backing himself for a frankly weird long bomb into the forward line, Gresham Nick Heyne-ing a left foot entry, Savage lining up from 50 and not making the distance, Gresham again hitting the belly of the ball and blasting it out on the full, and Dean Kent missing shots. The one chance we did get to pass to a forward on their own had Sav poking an easy 15 metre kick over the top of a stationary Billings. Also, Darragh Joyce kicked a long banana.

 

At one point, GWS had kicked four goal from four inside 50s either side of seven inside 50s of our own for exactly zero goals. Inside 50s were a ridiculous 61-39 when Kent kicked his second and sealed his spot for another couple of weeks.

***

The Age’s “Story of the year” proclamation may be framed overlooking a case display of “The Streak” in St Kilda’s Amazon warehouse-sized Hall of Shame, Infamy and Sadness. As I’ve said in the past few weeks, any statistical or circumstantial coincidences you may find, or any lofty predictions or bold declarations you may make or hear, will sink its teeth firmly into your St Kilda supporting glutes. If it sounds like it’s tempting fate, then St Kilda offers the comfort of security we all crave deep down.

My birthday is in May. I turn 31 this month, and for anyone around my age, this decade – the 2010s – will represent a nasty, long head cold as the fallout of not just 2009 and 2010, but the several years leading up to it. Stretching back to 1997, anyone in my generation, really, has seen a lot faux-success but chiefly hope, which is what St Kilda trades on in lieu of actual success. We have a strange arc as supporters of being used to strong St Kilda teams with bold leaders and personalities and, the promise of seeing that second premiership, with the weight of a pathetic and dark history over 146 years dragging us down and stomping when we thought it was time for the club to shed that and become something more.

As we settle in to another season that is quickly evaporating, for the first time I’m reaching a point in which the meek and messy is far more familiar as a lived experience. We remembered what being good was like for about a week, but now the morning chill bites a little harder on weekdays. Injuries are piling up and the opposition isn’t straying far from “premiership contender” any time soon. Best to dress sensibly for the weather, so bring a jacket.

  • Campbell

    Nice one Tom.

    The less said about this game the better!

  • http://www.redwhiteandblack.com.au Richard Lee

    Thanks for the report, Tom!

    I think one thing worth noting as well is that, prior to this game team have now had at least 6 real games of footy by which to take in our gameplan, our tendencies, our “method” and in turn, they’re better prepared at how to expose any weak points in our “method”.

    From the looks of the weekend, even when we were on top (which was a fair portion of the game), we seem deadset on sticking to the gameplan regardless of opposition.

    We’ve heard the players, and coaches in particularly, harp on about how the gameplan had been simplified this year and with that, if we’re happy to accept that and accept that the opposition recognise this, then we need to apply that strategy really well. In short, the players just haven’t been good enough to do that against stronger opposition – and I would argue that the Crows and Giants have been the best two teams we’ve played against so far.

    Another thing while I think of it – we just haven’t had enough of an even contribution in terms of individuals. Players such as Billings, Joyce, Gresh, Longer, Kent, Marsh, Clark, amongst others haven’t contributed much in the recent two losses.