There’s a time

By Tom Briglia

Round 19, 2019
St Kilda 3.2, 5.7, 10.10, 15.14 (104)
Melbourne 5.3, 6.4, 10.6, 13.7 (85)
Crowd: 22,854 at Docklands, Saturday, July 27th at 7.25pm

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Are we feeling freer? Were we able to focus a little more on what we were meant to be doing on Sunday? Was the sun shining at a different angle, the air a little milder? For both of those last ones, the answer is actually yes. We’re pattern-seeking mammals and we read into things like that. In this case, that St Kilda has just won two games of footy playing its most interesting footy in three years, endless fluffy skill errors aside.

Richo’s success was ours, and we felt the pressure that was building on his job and the lcub in some way. Watching the Saints every week went from “Holy shit, the Billy Slater thing worked” in April to a sad countdown with no obvious end by mid-July.

Not just for the broader picture, or the Road to 2018, or the last 53 years, but more immediately a coach being sacked usually means that specific season has turned to slop. And now peeking out, or peeking through, or seeping through, or whatever, is a tiny bit of pressure coming the other way. Secretly, quietly, the mathematical chance of playing finals is a little higher now. In all likelihood this is the same teasing Road to Nowhere runs seen in 2012, 2016 and 2017, and while we’re here we might as well throw in 2003 and 2007, although each of those represented very different parts of this club’s history. Since the Pelchen days we’ve been waiting for a Riewoldt generation-style rebuild to become apparent, Road to 2018 maps or not, but the confetti and endless futures that exploded into view in 2004 haven’t eventuated. If we really wanna push it, then maybe this might be a 2008, if we can shit out some successive 108-point wins and everyone collapses around us in smoking piles of shit and draws. Fantastical scenarios in our head are justified with freak past occurrences. Remember when Brisbane made it in 1995 with 10 wins? And then Essendon did it in 2009 with 10 and a half? Remember that article that said maybe a team could make it with less than 12 wins? That could be us, and anything could happen, but usually it’s bad.

And let’s not completely get carried away. We’ve got a percentage that’s as attractive as me on the 58 tram heading into the game on Saturday evening realising I had a bit of snot on the outside of my nose. It’s a less forgiving environment too, you’re consistently the only Saints fan on that route.

Five-and-a-half minutes had us three goals down and the weird apparition that was a vaguely competent St Kilda team had disappeared in a floundering mess of red, white and black and red, white and royal blue that echoed the Camberwell and Frankston match-ups in the 1970s.

The 6.5 of the first quarter against the Dogs had turned into three players cutting across Luke Dunstan’s path as he was running in to goal, and Doulton’s set shot misses were widely known enough that when he reluctantly took the chest mark in the forward pocket in the second quarter it set off one of those moments in which everyone starts talking about it, and instead of 30,000 people (or in our case, 30) people yelling “BALL” the chorus is dispersed into smatterings of “Doulton Langlands/the video at training/he’s already missed two”.

***

Before his game turned into a career highlight, Seb Ross was merely contributing magic moments amongst quality capers that in all fairness weren’t confined to him. He kicked his once-every-several-months goal on the run from 50 metres to go with probably the classiest forward line moment of his career, but by the end he’d produced a quality body of work. Not sure that he’s screaming captaincy, but he’s seeming a whole lot less meek about it. The most promising part of the night as far as his 2021 Onwards Premiership Captain prospects go was cracking the shits with Blacres after the GOAT played the uncontested ruck contest against Gawn for a second time on the wing without actually, you know, contesting at all. and Melbourne walked in a goal at a crucial moment in the third quarter. It felt like it was going to be one of those nights at Colonial Stadium: a young team you have no reason yet to trust fumbling their way down to the wire.

Half-time saw Disney tightened its stranglehold on our home games beyond the Spiderman wall, and the giant thing of whatever the fuck it is just inside Gate 3. Simba Cam appeared to replace Kiss Cam, so instead of some tacky US MAJOR LEAGUE SPORTS half-time shit we got…forget it.

This game was heading towards zero clear resolutions. Newnes pulled out the self ankle-breaker in the opening minutes of the third quarter when abusing the game of Australian Rules football lost its appeal. But in the same way Seb kicked his long goal, Josh Bruce’s played his once-every-several-months Kosi-late-career colossus game, except he’s now played a few them in the space of a several weeks. Again, you’d consider him a leader but probably not a captain, but Paddy aside he’s the only guy that genuinely plays like one. Herculean efforts, a big presence, and I can tell from my room in Brunswick West that he does what he can to keep the atmosphere in the group lively. His first goal via ruck contest grab-and-go was weirdly aggressive, an unwieldy big guy’s version of Seb’s neat turn, and so many of his moments on Saturday were big. Who else would have kicked that goal on the three-quarter time siren? Who else was going to honour Hunter Clark’s almost-literally game breaking moment off half-back with a lead and then another set-shot goal with a 50-metre-plus kick to put us back in front in the last quarter?

Very quietly over the past several weeks, he and Membrey seem to have sorted their shit out and are rarely sighted at or near the same contest. It helps when players up the ground seem to actually know what they’re doing or would like to do with the footy, and the longer this chapter of the season plays out the less blame we can put purely on the lack of presentation foward of the ball. Bruce has kicked 19 goals in the past six games; he’d kicked 13 for the entire season before then, and Membrey has kept his own tally ticking over without needing to do anything spectacular. So much so you’d barely have realised he kicked three goals in within 10 minutes of play in the third quarter. His first might have been the worst goal I’ve ever seen, walking after loose ball that had bounced off the top of a pack and no one bothered else bothered chasing after it. Bruce is usually the ring-in, but this was part-time keeper at Wednesday night futsal giving up the one-on-one stuff.

***

Neither team really looked like they actually wanted to win. A goal off the ground from past and almost certainly future nemesis Christian Petracca after a poor goal square contest, and then a free kick immediately given away by Carlisle saw a 10-point lead became a two-point deficit in a few seconds. Bruce’s huge goal put us back in front on the siren, but I was assuming we’d all turfed the whole “we’ll run teams off their feet at Marvel Stadium” schtick (as if we’d kept that up throughout the season anyway) and wasn’t sure what else we could pull out in the last quarter. Melbourne kicked a goal in the first 20 seconds, and the next one, and the atmosphere had been sucked out of the stadium, presumably via the gates because for some reason there’s a fucking roof on our home ground.

Rather than having a moment in which the game was thrust upon some unwitting kid, Hunter Clark decided to do the reverse. He’d been good anyway, and I say that with a strange familiarity. When was the last time a Saint did something so decisive in one game, let alone a 20-year old? A fend-off with one hand, a gather with the left off-balance, and turn and acceleration off half-back is something our game plan hasn’t allowed for, or our players haven’t been capable of, or wanted to do, or knew they could do. Or whatever, and even better that Seb and Bruce could finish it off. The Best Player in the AFL Since Round 11, Rowan “I’ve Fucked It” Marshall, didn’t beat Gawn but he was clearly learning during the game and by the final quarter had figured out how to win the ball out of the ruck consistently. Nick Hind had backed out of contests, had a mark on his own on the boundary called touched over the line, and taken the game on after pulling off the shortest kick known to science and blasted it across the face all within a few minutes, but when game was down to the final minutes he had his chance to go with flight, and had the awareness and balance to stay with the ball and kick the goal.

***

Having a VFL match-up the day after is both a) a ridiculous waste of a chance have a curtain raiser; and b) a massive come down for at least on set of fans. There would have been negative willingness the morning after to go again if we’d lost on Saturday night, but all of a sudden I’m more than willing to waste a beautiful Sunday on my weird yellow pleather couch and watch Sandringham play. The all-star cast helped, sure – Battle, Webster, Steven, Parker, Marsh, D-Mac, but the Brett Ratten Effect had reached the coaches’ box of Sammy Hamill at the Wilson Storage Trevor Barker Beach Oval. Anyone who bothered tuning in would have seen the new quintessential St Kilda stuff: D-Mac running and bouncing down the wing and kicking forward to the lead of Darragh Joyce, who nailed the goal from the set shot 40 metres out. You would have seen Stuv bulleting a kick out of the air from the pocket to Robbie Young, Webster bulleting a kick through the middle to Joyce on the lead (but he missed that one). Marsh running through traffic to Joyce on the lead. You would have also seen, uh, Parker blatantly, wildly, going third-up in the ruck. Never has anyone given away a free kick while looking so confident and athletic.

The point is, guys are playing like themselves (the Parker thing aside, but the levels of entertainment, relatively speaking, are through the Concrete Disney Store’s roof). Gresham needs to stop kicking the cover off the ball but the different elements of each player are being encouraged and it shows. I’m not sure what the hell happened between April 20th and July 21st – three months and one day – but for now we can enjoy the feeling of being catapaulted into another dimension, like a cat shaking itself off after accidentally being shut in the bathroom for an entire day.

This six-week stretch feels like a pilot episode for the 2020s. Some of the cast will change. Character development will naturally occur, some will be written in and some will be written out. In the way The Simpsons and Seinfeld had their first episodes in 1989, but are linked inextricably with the 1990s (or at least the peak of the former is), the players we’re watching, if successful, will most likely be linked to the 2020s when it comes to western pop culture references and conversations had in mid-21st century bars.

What was supposed to be the next Geelong rivalry of the aughts for us hasn’t yet proven to be anything, but Melbourne and the Saints seem to keep circling each other – even last year we both decided to do things in extremes. We’re the last two teams with premiership droughts after the Lions, Swans, Cats, Bulldogs and Tigers wiped out a combined 276 years of drought the in space of 17 seasons (I’m counting the Bears, but also fuck that). We haven’t been successful enough over any period of time to generate any genuine rivalries so the consistent spotfires on Saturday night stirred a competitiveness we’ve forgotten about, or never really got that used to. If you had any empathy you could take some pleasure out of seeing Geelong break through in 2007, even if at that moment the Riewoldt generation looked to be floundering. It should have been us, we might have thought, and we definitely think it should have been us two years later. The Bulldogs also loomed as a potential rival in the next great drought-breaking race between two battlers, but we could take pleasure in their 2016 heroics. We felt like we were on our way ourselves at that point, too. Instead there’s a chance if we get our shit together with this group we’re going to be competing with Melbourne and then maybe Carlton, whose drought is at 24 years already. But all we’ve really done right now is win two games in a row.

  • Campbell

    One of your better write ups Tom,

    I looooovvvee beating Melbourne. We should’ve beaten them by 40+ points. I think that’s probably where we’re at presently. The shackles have been released but we’re not good enough to ‘put teams away’. I’m sure we’ll get there. In my heart i believe we can make finals – in my head, it’s wishful thinking!

    I forgot what a dynamic player Sinclair and Ross are at their best. Bruce is playing the man we all hoped he’d be after that ’15 season. He’s our spiritual leader for mine.

  • Tom Briglia

    Haha thanks Campbell (I secretly thought I struggled with this one? For whatever that’s worth).

    I genuinely didn’t think Bruce would play like this again. Maybe the team wouldn’t allow it, maybe he was too banged up, maybe he wouldn’t get another number one target in place of Riewoldt (right now he doesn’t look like he needs one, but just Max King’s presence I feel would help him a lot). The camera cutting to Ross on the siren was fortuitous but even something about his celebration showed some sort of maturity. And it’s really good seeing Sinclair’s game have some real personality again.

    Making the finals would be funny.