Scattered in the mud

By Tom Briglia

Round 16, 2020
St Kilda 4.4, 5.8, 7.13, 11.14 (80)
Hawthorn 5.1, 5.5, 6.6, 9.12 (66)
Crowd: Some humans at Metricon Stadium, Sunday, September 6th at 1.05pm

Daniel Cherny was absolutely not thinking about me when he noted that there were fans of then-second-placed St Kilda who were worried about how they might physically make it to the Grand Final given Victoria and state border restrictions ahead of a towelling to Geelong on a Monday night. However, I was absolutely feeling a small pang of cheeky guilt. This is St Kilda, and the most St Kilda thing possible would be to win a second premiership this year. Today, we learned that we might not even be allowed to watch the month-delayed Grand Final with more than one other human.

No matter. In the time following those heady few days and a string of Channel 7 games, the Travelling Dan Butler, Max King, Hunter Clark, and High Kickin’ Tim Membrey Show had conked out and disappeared from cultural reference points in a fast-deeping bog of slow ball movement, poor forward line entries, shots at goal from wide angles and close losses. A Soft 1998, if you will, the Saints falling from grace with some anxiety induced footy and a barrage of awkward losses interstate, except this one is (theoretically for now) at the beginning of this team’s arc, a marker of development and the development required, rather than marking the beginning of the end. We hope this is more of a return to brief anonymity than anything else.

Back to the depths of Fox Footy for a Round 16 game that meant no more and no less than fuck all to one participating team and to most neutrals. Harder to engage than most pandemic-era matches given the Dan Andrews press conference immediately before. Many St Kilda fans wouldn’t have noted we actually managed to sneak in a bye during the week. Anonymously anonymous.

***

I’m a sucker for novelty stats, scores and so on and Hawthorn really let down bored freaks like myself by allowing the Crows the chance to keep Fitzroy’s 1964 the most recent instance of a winless season. The Saints are probably the ideal team to make amends against, of course.

So maybe it wasn’t wildly horrifying that the first three goals went the Hawks’ way. This was going to be a long afternoon of shanked kicks forward and not much coherent footy, probably about as long as Metricon was playing music for after goals. “Get Lucky” after Jack Gunston blasted through Hawthorn’s second felt wildly out of place given most fans of the two Victorian teams had just been told they were going nowhere fast and facing a greater chance of psychological and financial trauma.

For much of the first quarter we really only had some pressure acts by Jack Lonie to feel good about, while the Hawks had Dylan Moore pulling off a neat one-two to run in for their third. The step taken from being encouraged by efforts or moments from inexperienced or younger guys, to being encouraged by matches and wins created by inexperienced or younger guys can be long and dour. The step back can be a very quick stumble, landing weirdly on your arse, and yes, everyone did see it. The inaccuracy, the hurried kicks. Marshall broke through with a strong mark on the lead and kick around the corner, and quickly this became a high-scoring match (by 2020 standards at the very least). But only in the way that this was two teams fumbling around at a pre-season intensity.

Breust won a free kick on the siren but kicked right into the man of the mark. Paddy Ryder made sure the celebration for that alone was big and tried getting the team up. He was able to break through and turn around a broken-down game against the Bombers. It was a rare moment of intiative.

***

High-scoring, free-wheelin’ footy was absolutely not going to last beyond the coaches’ first face to face interaction with the players. Not in 2020. A modern-day tale of Tiring Young Once-Challengers against Tiring Also-Rans was unfolding. It was going to be ugly. While the Hawks were kept to 1.5 over the second and third quarters, we could only manage 3.9 in that time. No frenetic pressure, no overly slick football, just occasions in which one team was slightly quicker and a little cleaner in traffic, enough to find someone on the outside, and if it went forward there wasn’t going to be anything overly clean.

Individuals rarely stood out. During the second quarter, Brad Hill took control of how the ball was moved with more creativity. In his best moment on the broadcast side he sliced through three Hawks players on the wing and cut inside with a neat kick that quickly found Lonie for the only goal of the quarter. Dan Butler showed off some of his own hard running. Ben Long won a hard ball and a free kick, also on the wing and a few moments later, floated across a park running hard across the ground and took a delightful mark. On the day of the first absence of Max King, Marshall played as a full-forward and deserved more than 2.2 for several strong grabs in attack – the type we’re hoping Max King will be taking in due course – as  well as his work up the ground.

For all of those, we also had Jack Steele prop up a neat pass straight to James Frawley, whose quick didn’t get past Steele’s reach, and Ed Philips’ handball (shortly after his calamity squirt on the left that trickled out of bounds) meant the Hawks were away. Breust took too long on his snap and a behind was the result.

Marshall and Battle loomed as a big threats after a run of behinds that took us to 5.12, but yielded mixed results. Dodgy set shots from all angles took the posters count to four (was it five?). Billings’ comically high snap on the siren wobbled its way through. He snuck the kick in just before the siren after the umpire called play on. A critical mass of small mercies and Dan Butler sprints and Nick Coffield intercepts would be the difference.

Hawthorn’s tilt really reached its end with four spurned shots on goal early in the last quarter. Mitchell Lewis’s kick from a big mark and was flipped to a Butler-generated goal to Battle, and three quick misses from different positions ended with Rowan Marshall minting his influence with a low collect and handball, and Jonathan Marsh contributing one of the better moments of the match, a bullocking burst away from two opponents and a handball that opened up the forward line and finished with Paddy Ryder on the goal line.

***

The absence of footy’s weekly grind this year was crowned during the week with confirmation that the Gabba would be hosting the Grand Final. (Tacky lightshow enthusiasts and “Because we need to be like US sports” fetishists were given some good news and bad news, with the game not being in Perth but probably at night. People with lots of money and no care at Channel 7 will do what they can to keep it that way, no matter how it actually plays out.)

I remember the day of the Grand Final Replay. The heat. The sun shining at an angle not usually seen when Collingwood and St Kilda are on the MCG. The exhaustion, obviously – not just the week before, but the everything that had happened through the GT and Ross era. I think about Bob Murphy’s rhythm of the season. The song has stopped by then. It felt like we’d maxed out, and by “we” I mean the footy community. We shouldn’t be at the MCG watching a game of footy at that time of year.

Footy frames the calendar year. In any other year this would be the first weekend of the finals series. We still might return to the finals in 2020, but this young team is tiring. We’ve been programmed to have been done with our St Kilda duties by now. Time to get on with our lives, or whatever, but usually familiarise ourselves with what two genuinely good teams going all out looks like. High pressure, decent footy, taken in pressure-free. Maybe even watch some VFL or VFLW or local footy finals, too. Soak up the changing of seasons. The sun shining at this angle usually tells me we’ve done what we need to do. We’ve made it through winter. Spring is here. This has been a long season. A long year. And it’s going to get longer.