If you must, you must

By Tom Briglia

Round 16
North Melbourne 7.5, 10.6, 13.7, 17.10 (112)
St Kilda 1.1, 6.3, 8.5, 11.7 (73)
Crowd: 10,696 at Bellerive Oval, Sunday, July 8th at 3.20pm

Screen Shot 2019-07-08 at 10.10.15 pm

 

We could afford ourselves the testing block Adelaide, GWS, West Coast and Collingwood. Maybe pinch one, and then we’d have Josh Bruce’s “decent stretch” of games. Then we’d be back. Hannebery in, Carlisle in. Easiest draw in the comp. Carlton? Yeah right. Port Adelaide? Flighty and fickle. Gold Coast? Lost their early season vigour, and back to being the 21st century’s University. Brisbane Lions? Young team set to fade. Richmond? Has-beens with injuries (which turned into, should be rusty off the bye). North Melbourne? About to sack their coach and the next-worst (which turned into, ???).

And St Kilda?

This has become a laborious path to the end of the Road to 2018. No 10,000 members in New Zealand, no big fish caught on the free agency market, no big fish bred in the Moorabbin pond, really, no top four finish by 2018, let alone 2019, and anyone who drew up those plans won’t be able to claim to be the architects of any freak premiership in 2020.

Lethlean started padding out our holding cells by specifying that Richo would need to start beating the teams above us. Rampant diarrhea was a decent excuse against Port, but utter shit is the reasoning for what’s happened since. Sweat on the ball figured as an excuse in the nicest weather we played in.

This was probably the last of any “normal” match-up before things either get really dicey in terms of unacceptable margins, and then mathematically incompatible with a contract extension. North Melbourne are now looking more attractive and potent than they have in years, and with the most recent and comprehensive evidence we have, a 46-point better team than us when the season is on the line. Brisbane is in the top four. Carlton has a future. Melbourne, for now, can legitimately call this year a once-off. We’re running out of jokes that aren’t us, and no one cares about the Suns anyway.

***

In the same way a trip to Geelong in 2011 was a landmark event for the Demons (and nearly for a few competition records that will probably never be threatened again), the Cattery looms as the scene of something definitive. It’s been such a dour, spluttering path I think we all might have tuned out by the time it actually happens. Whether it’s a big loss on Saturday night, or simply commentators and fans doing their own maths or using the ladder predictor across a round of footy somewhere between now and several weeks’ time to confirm there are no laws of science that would allow us to make, let alone win, a final in 2019.

For a club known for mastering disorganisation, hope and ultimately heartbreak in extremes, the post-Grand Finals era has been disengagement by stealth. We’re not thundering towards a dramatic overhaul, we’re not going to pull a GT-for-Ross style move that looks more incredible (in the true sense of the word, for all of the better and for all of the worse) as time passes and and the legend around the two eras grows. No more miracles, no more fancies, no more flirting with naughty, forbidden thoughts of the impossible. We will reconvene in a few weeks (maybe one week), take the few split seconds to reacquaint ourselves with the usernames and handles. Think about the better times when we were a step ahead on the Road. What I feared more than anything else after the Grand Finals was a Carlton 2009 to 2013-style peak in our next (i.e current) era of utter mediocrity, maybe pinching a final but holding onto the metallic taste of a useless final win. We will lay claim to beating the Bulldogs in 2016 and finishing two places under them on the ladder in their premiership year. We wouldn’t have bothered pinning it to our membership scarves as a badge of honour, next to 2017’s long-haired Jack Steele and recently-purchased Dan Hannebery editions.

***

So, yes, bizarrely, another game with the season on the line, or the coach’s job on the line, or maybe it’s not so bad, or maybe it has been a festering sore this whole time that we quietly thought it might be every time we left the Concrete Disney inspired to go home and not even think about watching a replay.

And, another game interstate. We’re consistent if nothing else. What does 47-7 at quarter time tell you? That the same problems have been occurring for six years regardless of season context nor personnel. Often in the first quarter, certainly by the some point in the second, trips outside of Melbourne have more often than not seen the game given up before the opposition takes the foot off, knowing the game is done. See how easy it is to spin that around? “Our players showed fight”, sure, but it would have been nice if they did that when the game was live, because if it was any other team it’s simple Richmond relaxing a little after going into half-time up 103-19 on the Gold Coast on Saturday.

Don’t confused “we got within 15 points for a few seconds” as a sign that this whole thing is working. Any warped positivity we would have felt during the game is, well, warped. The physicality and hot-headedness with and off the ball reappeared. Parker finally looked like he might hit someone (including one moment in which he was wrestling within a couple of metres of the live ball), Hind was cracking the shits with Polec, and Dunstan was acting more like the leader he promised to be five years, joined briefly by Acres who had switched into a mode other than “Oh yeah that’s cool”. Where did the pointing to the crowd go after goals? Not much to yell or point about when you’re watching another year pass you by. The season is still absurdly open and 12 wins may yet be much more than enough to sneak in. The problem is, there are other teams who would also like to play finals, please. In the same way, we’ve ended up thinking Seb Ross is borderline A-grade and a bunch of guys could easily be traded out for second-round picks. We’ve been comparing our own middling guys to the rest our middling crew. I’ve forgotten what a good St Kilda team looks like. Not one that “shows fight” when the match has been blown and the score is 53-7 and the opposition still only bothers to yield seven points in that margin by game’s end. “At least we fought it out” was something that could be used in 2015 and 2016. But it’s been used since and it hasn’t been appreciated. At least what? And then what?

Richo looked tired doing his coach’s message for the club app. He mentioned the same points he’s mentioned before in these situations, but he and the talking points had been sapped of the optimistic slants. Outscoring them by one point after quarter time was mentioned, but it didn’t matter. It was too little, too late, done and dusted, he said.

***

Battle getting innocuously hurt wasn’t anything new. At training alone in the past several weeks, Steele dislocated his kneecap and Dean Kent kicked a ball, and now he’s out for the season. Battle just adds his name to a list that it feels like anyone of importance has been on this year.

If there was anything remarkable about Sunday, it was how unremarkable it was. Three goals in the opening eight minutes to North Melbourne. Their unquestioned physicality was there from the start of the game, because that’s when you do those things: during the game. From the time that it starts. A long Ziebell snap from near the boundary skittled everyone and rolled through for a goal, and until Hunter Clark has a career vaguely approaching Lenny’s then the respective broadcasts remains a footage of a physical senior North player ironing out a young Saint with unquestioned commitment to a contest, and their likeness a genuine curio.

I’m not saying Hunter will not be a good player, by the way – he looked fantastic and more composed than any other Saint last week, and on Sunday post-barrelling. That’s what a young player playing well looks like. It’s not just glimpses for a couple of years that don’t actually impact games and then trail off. Again, it’s no surprise he plays like this and has spent a whole lot less time in the club’s system (whatever that means) than other guys. Same goes for Carlisle, who was back to his relaxed plucks out of the air best, Dan Hannebery in the 45 seconds he’s played for us, and of course The Best Player in the AFL Since Round 11, Rowan Marshall, who let’s not forget didn’t spend the formative years of his adult career at the Saints.

Zurharr five goals, Larkey five goals. Who? Yeah exactly, and they’ve developed these guys more in five weeks than we have in six years.

***

Josh Bruce played his one-every-couple-of-months herculean performance, which is a description that Greg Baum used in 2012 that I’m paraphrasing. In that piece, he was talking about Justin Koschitzke’s Round 6 performance against Hawthorn. It feels like Bruce is playing a more modern latter-career Kosi role. Bruce always plays like he cares, but on Sunday he was taking every mark and he was nailing every set shot. Remember when he did that kind of recently? Incorrect, it was actually nine weeks ago. That’s how long it’s been. He needs Max King as the main human.

For some reason Newnes was already back, but he played one of his more efficient games of the year, reprising his early season form between the arcs, but he noticeable had a lot more purpose in his kicking forward.

***

This season really ended in earnest with one of the saddest turnovers of all time. Carlisle, who had battled strange umpiring and the opposition completely outplaying us anyway, casually won a marking contest against Ben Brown at centre half-back and handed it off. D-Mac spotted Seb on the rebound out wide, and kicked it over his head. Scott Thompson trotted through and without breaking stride, guided it into the pocket and Ben Brown already had a gap on Carlisle, ran onto the ball and neatly plucked it out of the air on the high bounced and dribbled it through. Coffield’s weird poke directly out on the full was funny; this was funny and also rather sad.

But who’s coming back from 47-7 down at quarter time, with 21 to seven inside 50s? More to the point, who’s letting this happen again? It’s enough to be stress eating three different types of chips while you’re watching the game, but it’s Monday night and I’ve eaten five-sixths of a 345g bag of M&Ms (“More to Share!”).

***

I mentioned the Footy Round 10-year anniversary of the Round 14, 2009 match a couple of weeks ago (obviously), but last Friday marked the 10-year year calendar anniversary. I don’t know how you or anyone can watch anything from that season without feeling incredibly sad or wanting to throw up. I put up the 2009 season highlights DVD on our YouTube channel as a reminder that all of those feelings of optimism and bewilderment throughout that year, as a culmination of that decade and everything that had happened, actually were were real (also, no one else had; PPS it was “Members Only”, because Sports Delivered shat it again). To think it is 10 years later. Of course, that’s an arbitrary marker of time that western culture has came up with, but it means it gets a double page spread in the Herald Sun, a full highlights package on the AFL site and social media channels, and we talk about it a bit. We think a bit more what a different time and place that was. No mention of the Grand Final. Has enough time passed that those moments have splintered away from each other just enough to not bring one up without the other? We all know the story anyway.