Ask me again in 2 months

By lethal

St Kilda 2.1, 4.6, 4.8, 4.10 (34)
Geelong Cats 2.4, 7.5, 11.7, 14.9 (93)
Crowd: 3,093 at the GABBA, Thursday, August 10th at 6.10pm

Maybe it’s the calming background flow of the Yarra river water nearby in dormant Abbotsford, but I’m putting this loss down as a blip rather than a bust.

This season has been so much about the team defying every natural instinct or premonition that a Saints fan tends to default to, that I would’ve forgiven you for succumbing to some pre-emptive optimism for the Cats clash. A threshold had been crossed.

They have Danger; so what? Steele. I see your Hawkins, I raise you King. Dan Butler is kicking goals for fun.

The kool-aid tap had flipped on and the break-neck speed of the 2020 fixture hasn’t really allowed us to stop and look in the mirror.

In my immediate Saints circles I don’t think the lid had come off, but sub-consciously everyone had accepted that the W-L column is a real thing this year. And that the feeling of “we should win this game” suddenly was legitimate too. I definitely felt that for the Swans game. The Suns game? Not so much. Monday night versus the Cats? Nope. At the risk of being an massive apologist, the Saints were due.

Due for a downer. Due for a 10 goal loss? No.

That’s not to say that yours truly is plotting some sort of Shawshank Redemption-esque escape from Victoria to go north in anticipation of an appearance at The Big Dance, but the fact is that the team was running on fumes against the Suns. Butler kicked four of the finest, Battle swung forward with magic effect, Hunter Clark was shrugging off tackles like it was going out of fashion. Individuals came up big when the game was on the line. The four points aside, it was far from a convincing effort. Gold Coast huffed and puffed but ultimately couldn’t blow the Saints down. That was indicative of the Suns’ immaturity more than anything. And to his credit, Ratts has warned us before that we hadn’t been punished for our inadequate chunks of play to date.

The Geelong Cats are a different proposition. 400 uncontested marks (give or take) within the first 4 minutes of play underlined that this was a different beast to be dealt with; this isn’t an outfit that beats itself. It was kill or be killed.

With the Cats having a monopoly on possession, the 3 point margin at quarter time had me beaming through my mouthful of corn chips. The media has pumped-up on some of our flashy imports (see Butler, Jones, Howard), but the resilience of the side has been somewhat overlooked. And here again, St Kilda wasn’t budging. The second quarter felt a lot more like the wrestle that the Saints needed to force it to be. Finally we were getting our hands on the ball a little bit more, and though there was a lack of method in our forward thrusts, we were at least starting to land some jabs into their mid-riff. Missed set shots by King and Battle though, ultimately were extremely costly. The King miss became an 11 point swing that turned out to be a dagger. That was us effectively done for the night.

Earlier this year Ratts stated that consistency would make or break this team’s season. On that front the team has made big headway. The Pies game was a disaster, but we bounced back hard by dunking on the reigning premiers and then snapped our Adelaide Oval hoodoo against the flag favourites no less.

Not only did the side “look” different, but it felt like it actually was different.

And that’s probably what made Monday night so frustrating. This year has been different. Not just the bizarro fixture and the mostly empty stands. The side has had a newfound belief, and played with a purpose we just haven’t been used to for a long time. Yet this loss felt akin to some of the interstate soft kills we endured through the entire Richo era. That feeling that the opposition was is too bored to rub it in our face and high-fives after goals are in short supply in favour of preserving juice for games that are more worthwhile.

At one point in the call on Monday, Dermie called the Cats performance “surgical”. It felt pretty on the money. This is far from the Cats first rodeo; they have seen plenty of upstarts like the Saints come and go. Brad Scott’s game plan often seems as dull as dishwater, but it’s steadfast and it suits a group of hardened vets. And that’s exactly what these Cats are: Scrambling to try and patch-up why this so-called blockbuster had been one sided, the Fox Footy team were quick to hammer home how these Cats were one perhaps the most experienced side ever. I don’t have all the numbers in front of me, but it felt believable.

But as much as we talk about strategies, Xs and Os, magnets on boards, if you don’t win the ball then strategy kind of counts for nothing. And not only that but the Cats’ militant application kind of reduces the game back to it’s basics. Win the ball; tackles must stick; spoil hard; usher the ball over the boundary; if in doubt go wide; get numbers to every contest. The Saints, though learning fast, have been – by comparison – a lot more excitable and cavalier. And our iffy bits and pieces in between were completely laid bare on this occasion.

Geelong’s relentlessness found a razors edge come the third term. This quarter has been a real weak spot for the Saints and they were put to the sword this time. The ascendancy that Bytel (18 touches, 5 clearances) and others in the centre had swayed our way in the second term vanished when Paddy Football and co. leaped out of second gear and were whisking the ball away at will. As much as I think Hawkins is an overrated oaf, he’s going to be pretty hard to stop when the ball is raining down on you pressure-free. Carlisle may still be having nightmares about Tomahawk getting the wrong side of him.

Whether this game becomes a death knell or a building block for certain defenders (cough Carlisle *cough) will be something to revisit at the season’s conclusion. Carlisle, Paton, Coffield, Long, Wilkie, and Battle all had some regretful moments or more. Carlisle was simply out of his depth, particularly physically. Paton fought on but his naivety shone through at times. Coffield’s overt niceness came home to roost. Wilkie was athletically overmatched and Battle seemed to have mentally eviscerated any defensive learnings from 2019. Long was probably one of our best but is still prone to at least a couple of suicidal brain-fades per game.

Midfield pressure or no midfield pressure, 10 shots from 13 inside 50s is an embarrassing stat for any defense. To make matters worse I can think of at least 3 or 4 goals that felt uncontested from that goal mouth or near enough. Whatever slithers of time the team has to dedicate to actual football training this week might have to be dedicate to unlearn social distancing and embrace the idea of actually putting a body on someone. Steven Baker would’ve been spitting chips watching Monday Night

Brain fades and naivety are the sorts of things that teams of Geelong’s ilk just aren’t going to let pass by. A missed-kicked becomes a counter attack free for all; a ball not delicately ushered over the boundary line a tap-in. As much as it’s been thrilling to see how enthusiastic and daring our attack has been, this team still has a ways to go when it comes to battening down the hatches.

To be fair to our back six, our forwards didn’t cover themselves in glory either. I had to do a double-take when I saw King ended up with 3 marks. Harry Taylor (with ample help) taught him a lesson. Membrey was anonymous. Butler and Kent had 3 and 1 tackles respectively, and more importantly only one shot on goal – two if you count Butler’s speculative kick off the ground from 50m. If that went in, I probably would’ve just shrugged given the season that he has had to date.

I couldn’t help but think that the confidence accumulated by the likes of Hind and Gresham has gone way overboard. From week to week, it feels those two are gagging try their luck at Goal Of The Year like headless chooks. Granted, mercurial is Gresh’s middle name but I could appreciate if his colleagues didn’t have him on their Christmas Card list. Him and Hind operate with blinkers on. For Hind it left him with egg on his face when he instinctively burst onto a loose ball just inside 50 in the fourth quarter and slapped a low banana kick effort that didn’t make the distance and dribbled out over the line in the pocket. It was like a balloon being deflated, except that the jig had been up for a good half an hour by that point.

Look, cardinal sin number against the Cats is to let their defenders mark the footy and whilst none of their individuals were exactly prolific in that area, you’d say that Stewart and Taylor were probably in their best. (Tuohy was made to look like Chris Johnson in his GABBA heyday). Again, part of that is due to the naivety of Max. He’ll be better for the run; he’s been in the league for five minutes. Messiah complex or not, the Club should just be viewing his output this year as pure gravy.

You could count on one hand the amount of times we were able to get the ball into the forward 50 with semblance of coherence. Most of our surges forward, even during our stronger periods in the second quarter, were rushed, under pressure and haphazard. For all Geelong’s big names, the most impressive thing about their performance was their relentless pressure. Anytime the Saints looked to switch the ball, avenues and exit lanes shrunk and collapsed before their eyes. Brad Hill’s impact was the prime example of this

I don’t think it’s warranted to jump on this disappointment too harshly. Since the fade-out versus the Dockers the side has been impressively swift in it’s ability to balance out it’s run-and-gun attack, with some more measured passages of play. Both the Adelaide Oval wins, included bigger stretches of having to take our medicine and play the percentages when we had to.

Yet the loss is a sharp reminder of the weak spot that is our midfield. I have been steadfast in my reluctance to get drawn into the “Why didn’t we pick Petracca?” whinge chorus the last few years, but he would’ve been ideal on Monday night. That type of game, where winning stoppages and being strong over the ball is at an absolute premium is what he’s ideal for. On top of that, he’s the type of personality that you get the sense gets off on going up against some of the Competitions premier names. And that’s no disrespect to Steele. He has been magnificent this year and he was our best on Monday. 25 touches and a lot of quality ones at that. But like I had begun to touch on: there’s been an underlying understanding between a lot of the Saints faithful that the midfield is still lacking in class.

I mentioned to my Social Club Premium whatever cohorts prior to the bounce that I was surprised that we hadn’t rested more players. The Suns display was a tired and feeble one, and the side had been “up” for a good month or so. This game seemed like a chance to restock and reload before the Bombers and Lions game. In hindsight I’m thankful we didn’t play the Reserves side. We sorely missed Jones – and Ryder too. Jones’ irrational confidence would’ve been invaluable.