Reached out

By Tom Briglia

Round 13, 2020
Brisbane Lions 2.5, 3.6, 6.13, 6.14 (50)
St Kilda 1.0, 3.2, 6.3, 7.6 (48)
Crowd: 13,750 at the Gabba, Sunday, August 23rd at 3.35pm

Remember playing Games That Actually Matter during the home and away season? And I mean actually matter. The back end of 2011 – the last year in which we made finals – had some important games, but that season was a dour journey and always felt like just too much. You’d have to go back to the second half of 2010 – playing for top place against Collingwood, and then taking on a Hawthorn team reloading for their three-peat – as well as just having to win late in the season to keep the dream of a second premiership in tact.

In the way that we probably really forgot what genuinely good players looked like, and what genuinely good teams looked like, too, over that decade we’ve definitely forgotten what it’s like to play a home and away game that actually counted for something. Not just a trifling lower top eight spot (although we did only finish two places below the 2016 premiers), but for a top four spot against another team with premiership aspirations, in front of their home crowd. About 13,750 coming through on the wider shots on 7 never looked like so many humans. This felt like too much of an event to be wasted on a home and away match, on the same bill as “Gold Coast Suns vs Carlton” and “Fremantle vs Sydney Swans”. Never mind the weekly pressure that comes with having to win constantly and comprehensively. What, To be good you have be doing this all the time?

***

The returned pressure of an actual home crowd – yes, they were actual humans – instantly brought back the wobbly, anxious interstate St Kilda we knew and absolutely did not love during the mid- and late-1990s, no matter how high we were planning to fall down the ladder in calamitous circumstances:

Rowan Marshall went out of the air from a Stephen Milne 2010 Lite against Port Adelaide, but Membrey, who had worked off his opponent to the goal line, bemusingly, wildly kept the ball in on the goal line for no reason, and held firmly onto it while Billings tried soccering through on the line. Very Adam Dale tackled by Brendan Julian at cover in a tight 1998/99 tri-series match against England at the Adelaide Oval.

Sure, the rest of the game didn’t quite play entirely out that way. This was more admirable, a messy grind that showed a young team had learned something after being pantsed by a genuinely good, seasoned team. There was a lot of luck involved in being anywhere near touching distance.

Aside from the Membrey double-barrel, the first few minutes were pretty good, although in a game that is largely played entirely in momentum swings and being able to absorb or maximise those periods, that probably wasn’t going to mean too much for too long. Steele had already taken to strong mark early to give us the magic on the goal line, and a rude kick into attack fell with Butler for the first and he tried to get himself out of the Brent Guerra 2004 double-page feature-sized hole.

Membrey instantly set off on a two-hour mission to make up for it, and put in a comedy-laden but commendable performance that actually put him among our best by game’s end. Whether it was Brisbane’s set-up across the ground or our own anxiety-fuelled disposal, easier shots at goal from close range were reduced to difficult, scrappy chances. Membrey worked hard on the boundary and allowed Sinclair to run into space in the 50, but instead of hitting King at the top of the goal square with a straightforward pass the kick was off and King’s difficult day had officially started.

From then on, Brisbane played the game on their terms. I know I just talked up momentum shifts but rarely did the game stay from this pattern until the final quarter. Fullarton, McCarthy and Bailey all missed shots and Hipwood began a curious game of shanked set host. Lachie Neale’s disposals read 0 kicks and 4 handballs, but the quarter-time scoreline was 2.5 to 1.0 and a repeat performance of the Cats seemed the most likely course for the Sunday afternoon.

Cam Rayner missed another relatively straightforward set shot, but we weren’t doing ourselves any favours. Max King did his tall guy agility stuff and ran in to goal via the pocket for a banana shot but it was blasted across the face and landed in the forward pocket at Metricon. Some talky talk words from Harris Andrews were on their way, and outmarked King just a few minutes later. King’s big moments – strong marks in the third and final quarters – would yield shanks. Membrey’s redemption mission found the next goal, Some half-hearted decisions had Josh Battle taking a set shot out wide on the 50. This was a St Kilda 2020 team out of its comfort zone. Butler’s cheeky pull kick to a clever Kent lead in front somehow took us to the lead. We didn’t feel like the better team.

A dodgy high free kick on the opposite wing and an unlucky ricochet off Ben Long’s shin quickly gave Charlie Cameron a chance from the boundary. As it always seems – we’d know from our last few years – the Lions were probably going to get the tough ones. That’s all it took. Membrey ran hard to take a mark out of defence on the wing, but his kick into the corridor went right over the head of a teammate. Just a few moments later he won a free kick via holding ball free. Zak Jones was willing his way through traffic repeatedly, keeping the ball moving in a game in which it was rare anyone was able to generate or find movement. King dropped another couple of marks, Marshall and Steele missed shots, and the half ended with the ball bouncing around our front half with no reward. Kent was flagrantly pushed in the back in a ruck contest from a throw-in close to goal. Nothing. One of those friendless days interstate.

***

To make up for the chain that led to the Charlie Cameron goal, Marshall got a very cheap free at the start of the third and we were back in front. The Lions got the game back on their terms but only had 1.4 to show for their flurry. You could sympathise with them. Maybe. Maybe if they lost. But there was no time, not on the couch in Stage 4 Lockdown. There was a sense of competition we hadn’t felt for years. It was also time for the BUTLER BUTLER BUTLER rebound goal that weekly threatens to be our Either-Side-of-Half-Time Peak. Hill went harder than Zorko at a loose ball on the defensive 50 and wheeled around and picked out the runners. Steele and Sinclair got it through the middle and Butler clawed his way back into the season. Again, it didn’t last. Fullarton got his first for the Lions’ feel-good moment. They went out of the middle and Berry snapped one from out of the middle. The game rightfully felt like it was out our grasp. The Lions out of the middle again, Hipwood a big mark and for all intents and purposes it was party time. But he stabbed at it.

A rare break out of defence a couple of minutes later, and Steele snapped a wild goal out of traffic. The game felt as if it had swung back when Max finally grabbed one, this out of the middle and above his head on a hot lead. He missed. Another Brisbane behind, and then some slightly too slow movement on the wing, a scramble out wide and a hurried kicked forward had the siren sound just before the ball landed in Membrey’s hands. Too many 1998 areas.

***

By now the shadows at the Gabba had faded and it became easier to tell the teams apart (and that’s absolutely not an indictment on the jumpers themselves.). A red collar was a fun novelty, but the idea of red collar and cuffs is more appropriate for a mostly white clash jumper, to provide more contrast against the mostly black or navy or generally darker teams we clash with. The black cuffs were back, and perhaps this might have been a neat little test run ahead of signing with a new jumper manufacturer. Wearing the home jumper with the white shorts and clash socks is fun. I don’t know why Brisbane don’t wear a darker blue all the time as it is.

***

Brisbane only had one point left in them. The talls traded behinds – Hipwood first, and then Max took another excellent grab but hooked it. Billings was sent forward with only six touches to his name at the final change. Brisbane were tired. They were probably deflated too. Think of all the times we saw those chances pile up and thrown away.

The Royal Decree had it that we play on more. How much did we miss Hunter Clark in a game in which neat disposal and a cool head was at a premium? Coffield played out his most mature performance and became a central figure. King was able to get low and be clean in traffic to Billings who rammed through a tight shot against the goal line to bring the margin under a goal. The Billings that was flying for marks that we were introduced to in the early part of his career was back. Nine touches across the front half. The Lions didn’t have much left. We had our own problems. We had the play, but nothing had really changed. The easy shots close to goal still weren’t happening. The Lions still had their high pressure game going. Shots were repeatedly smothered. Hurried chances were sprayed. Battle missed another wide shot. A player was missed on their own in the goal square. Marshall’s huge effort on the rebound found Butler and we ran into attack on an angle ad scuffed the kick to King. This was the same game – more movement, sure – but with just as much anxiousness. “The next goal” never arrived,

***

Just like that 1998 game, we kicked more goals than the Lions, but lost. (Vaguely interesting sidenote – Brisbane “lost” by one second in the 2003 match, 90 to 85, in the way we lost that 1998 match by one second, with a scoreline of 12.20.92 to 13.13.91. In the Troy Schwarze game in 2004, we won by kicking less goals with the same points total reversed – 13.14.92 to 14.7.91).

Adam Schneider is quoted in The Mission as saying “Give me Grand Final nerves any day”. This was re-energising, whichever way you looked at. Yes, I want that pressure again, even though it’s just me stress-eating Kettle chips and Twiggies on the couch. This was the equivalent of getting our hands dirty as supporters. Of course there is disappointment. There was reassurance too, although that reassurance requires faith in what happens beyond this year. It’s latent, it feels organic, it is building on something more tangible. As far as this season goes, however, top four is most likely out of the question given the run home. Realistically, making the finals altogether will be a battle. It would be terribly disappointing should we miss. Heading into the game against the Cats two weeks ago, we were second on the ladder. Either way, something is at stake again. Watching Coffield walk off, knowing that arguably his best game to date counted for nought, King with his repeated contests that yielded mostly missed opportunities, Billings with almost but not really, not quite, a heroic last quarter, Steele and Jones and all their work in close, Membrey’s almost (and wtf) moments. They bind us to a team.