Sweeping you along

By Tom Briglia

2nd Elimination Final, 2020
St Kilda 2.2, 5.4, 9.6, 10.7 (67)
Western Bulldogs 3.1, 4.3, 5.6, 9.10 (64)
Crowd: Not sure, but they had the Finals bays for each team and everything, at the Gabba, Saturday, October 3rd, at 4.40pm

After a ghost Grand Final Day, the season more or less felt over. Well done everyone for coming along and performing. This is what I assume a Premier League season might feel like when the title is taken a month out from the end.

The body calendar is right out. September is famously and inextricably intertwined with this league. With the ambitions of clubs and supporters. This year, the last Saturday in September was empty, serendipitously but probably appropriately. A quiet day of mourning and acknowledgement for what has been lost this year.

But no, now it was time for the real thing. Match day brought extended coverage for a St Kilda game we hadn’t seen for nine years. 3,311 days to be exact. The Herald Sun offered a feature piece on Paddy “I Still Can’t Believe He Plays for St Kilda” Ryder. The Age had their spotlight on Jarryn Geary, the lowest profile and oftentimes the lowest-impact captain in the game. Both articles proved to be prophetic. A return to finals (or the pointy end) for a club means former players are wheeled out for comment. This week, it was Clint Jones, and we were reminded that time indeed moves on for those involved in the heady Ross and GT eras. Even the most baby-faced, puppy-like.

***

There’s something about a Saturday afternoon game in spring being broadcast live on Channel 7. The club ran out for its breakthrough final to the glorious, traditional version of the club song by The Fable Singers, but, uh, to a more-than-half-empty Gabba, with no banner, on October 3rd.

Josh Bruce snapping the first goal and grabbing his red, white and blue jumper was a rude welcome back to this part of the season. The imprint of these moments will be deeper. This is what the tape will look like. Gotta get shit right now.

Something to look out for was which players would be either willing or able to successfully bring their better traits to final. Ben Long almost knocked out Jack Macrae and then almost knocked out Dan Hannebery. Yes, it’s caused a whole lot of problems,but it’s still excellent to have a St Kilda player willing to throw their body around in a high-stakes game.

There was Max King moving high up the ground and pulling down a huge mark, and then another towering take at the top of the goal square against three opponents.

For the end-of-2000-style new coach and trade raid of last year, there are still so many players associated with the dark days of the 2010s. Now, we Jack Billings playing in a final. Seb Ross playing in a final. Tim Membrey playing in a final. Already, Ben Long, Hunter Clark, Nick Coffield, Ben Paton and Max King playing in a final. How I dearly would have loved to have a 70,000-plus MCG crowd roar for Max King’s towering mark against three Bulldogs opponents, or the reaction to Ben Long’s hits (and no doubt the cauldron it would have created), and, yes, Geary’s contested marks at full forward.

Geary reprised the early season role of one-on-one defensive forward, this time on Caleb Daniel. Geary’s place in the best 22 has been questioned this year, but his best performances have come in this role. This one was a little bit closer to his game on Sam Docherty. With his first contested mark at full-forward, he gave the ball off to Tim Membrey for St Kilda’s first goal in a final since Nick Dal Santo put through what wouldn’t even be classified as a consolation goal late in the 2nd Elimination Final against the Swans in 2011, the final act of the GT and Ross eras.

At quarter-time, his performance had a couple of ticks and crosses. There were the marks, yes, but moments that he didn’t quite take – a chance to knock on a loose high ball near goal to a teammate waiting in space, but he didn’t have the nous, and then a missed set shot after the quarter-time siren. You’ve just gotta kick that.

***

This game didn’t have the uncompromising physical pressure on quality ball movement usually reserved in the first week of September for Qualifying Finals. Ball movement was undone by not-quite-excellent execution a little bit too often. Geary missed his shot from close range, Membrey let one slip right through his hands and shanked the good work of Hannebery.

But there was the pressure of this being a finals match. There was always the threat that a few goals either way would be enough to break it open, in the unmistakable way that applies to a match that only comes down to whether you win or lose. The second quarter had some moments that felt as though a break might be nearing. We weren’t entirely humming. Crozier and Wallis nailed excellent set shots. Steele was down. But Hannebery was up. King played one of his best halves of the season (Paddy McCartin two-goal limit still applies though), pulling down contested marks higher up the ground and again close to goal as we began to make a move late in the second. Ryder was prominent. Clark showed as much composure and as much willingness to step off opponents as he has all year. Carlisle, Howard and Coffield were patrolling and controlling the skies in defence.


The most impressive passage of the night might well have been the chain of Hannebery, Clark, Wilkie, a quick follow-up by Marshall and excellent ground ball work from Hill (after a whole ground sprint) and Kent on the flank, and a rare calm moment from Lonie to hit Paddy on the lead. I remember watching the 2nd Elimination Final between North Melbourne and Essendon in 2014 on my own in the top deck of the MCC. We’d finished on the bottom of the ladder. It was time to check out a decent game in front of a decent crowd. Late in the game, as North were finishing over the top, Paddy Ryder took a one-handed mark just inside 50 on a tight angle and very audaciously wheeled around for one of the better snap goals you’ll see. As soon as he took the mark from Lonie’s neat kick and angled himself, I became the most confident about a St Kilda player kicking a goal from a set shot since BJ in the Draw. Paddy fucking Ryder, wearing a fucking St Kilda jumper.

***

Ryder’s quick kick hit Membrey from a fast start to the second half. We could just see a small crack appearing. Dunkley’s classy turn for a quick reply quelled that for a few moments. Tim English had moved and the Dogs had a tall target finding space. Max King almost ripped it open with a small sprint through the forward line. The ball movement had loosened up. Howard’s contested mark in defence was honoured by Steele hard up against the boundary, a quick kick from Billings, King bringing the ball to ground, finesse from Sinclair to find Hannebery who’d worked hard to get forward, another moment of calm from Lonie and the set shot goal from the leading mark out of full forward from, uh, Jarry Geary.

The game had swung. Seb caught and dumped Bont at half-back. Howard again started off a chain with a desperate knock to Billings. He flushed the kick to Lonie, Marshall stood up in a contest at half-forward and Paddy and Max could raffle it 15 out.

Yet again, a scintillating rebound goal from half-back finished off by Dan Butler represented the peak. Paddy took the high mark in defence, and Steele kept the ball moving after not hearing the play on call, and Paton and Sinclair quickly sent the ball forward to the tall target in, uh, Jarryn Geary, and Butler breezed by. The margin was 26 points, and the run now read 6.3 to 1.2. English missed a long set shot, and then Hunter an easy chance after a questionable free kick and a questionable 50.

***

Butler’s goal was the first moment I thought that we should win. Not necessarily that we would win. Simply, if we’re worth anything in 2020, then yes, we should win an Elimination Final after being 26 points up late in the third quarter.

Naughton’s goal didn’t come until just before the 10-minute mark. Richards missed a shot on the run. The game had changed. The throw-in was met by Paddy. The timing was exquisite; he palmed the ball down to Hannebery who had space and Butler flying past. Within a few seconds, Membrey had the ball in space in the forward pocket, and at full forward, by himself, was, uh, Jarryn Geary. He kicked the goal, and minted his best performance of the year.

That was the second moment I thought, well, we should win. My housemate (also Tom) proclaimed we had it safe multiple times from the third quarter onwards. As any St Kilda fan who witnessed the North Melbourne and Fremantle losses earlier this year (and St Kilda history generally( would, I met this with suspicion. (He is a Hawthorn fan, so rightly would believe any lead like that would be closed out.) St Kilda history is littered with things we should have done. It’s not littered with finals wins. We only had 21 of those coming into this year. Ten of those arrived between 1992 and 2010. The 10-year anniversary of both the 2010 Grand Final Draw and Replay passed int the lead-up to the game.

The third time that I thought, well, we should win, was Paddy’s big mark on the defensive side of the wing a few moments later. Seven minutes left. These moments were falling our way, or we were grabbing them.

Within a minute of play, Hunter had made up for his shank at the end of the third and it was back to 16 points with six minutes left. Billings couldn’t pull off a carbon copy of his late goal against the Lions hard up against the goal post, and the Dogs again took the ball straight up the end, but Dunkley just missed another shot.

No-one wanted to make the mistake. The movement was gone. Ryder got the clearance, roving his own ruck contest. Yet again the loose ball went the Dogs’ way. Caleb Daniel dived across Coffield’s boot. Wilkie’s next chance at a clearance went out on the full, Wallis drew the free kick. He missed – nine points now – but the next scoring shot wasn’t going to be ours. English took the mark, and Caleb Daniel went low and drew another free from Wilkie. Coffield, Long and and Seb Ross all cracked the shits and yelled at the umpire. Geary left the scene. Hunter Clark slumped to the ground in dismay. Caleb wasn’t going to miss this one.

***

Two minutes and five seconds left. Was 26 going to become the new 37 or 31? Was this how the season started and ended?

A Sinclair clearance and mark to Membrey helped eat up time, but as Membrey sent the ball forward out wide, Abbey Holmes announced Ryder had gone to the bench. Keath took the mark where he would have been. Duryea’s kick into attack was thumped down by Paton, who’d decided to leave his man in Wallis. Bruce grabbed Coffield high. 46 seconds. Marshall marked the perfectly-placed wide kick. Keath played for a soft free and got it at half-back for the Dogs, Steele tempted fate by not giving the ball back straight away. Paton was again there to meet it as the siren sounded.

Elimination Finals for St Kilda have marked the end of an era. After the 2004 and 2005 runs, the difficult 2006 season spluttered at the MCG on a Friday night, ending GT’s run. Similarly, the 2011 Elimination Final marked the end of Ross the Boss, bringing to a close a dark and depressed year after failed Grand Final attempts. This was a move forward, into a new era.

We’re not used to these kinds of scenes in recent history featuring St Kilda jumpers. And now, we have the footage and images of Jack Billings celebrating a finals win. Seb Ross celebrating a finals win. Tim Membrey celebrating a finals win. Already, Ben Long, Hunter Clark, Nick Coffield, Ben Paton and Max King celebrating a finals win. The Fable Singers thundered through the broadcast as the Saints players celebrated (and no, there is nothing quite like that). How I dearly would have loved to have been there, and to have the Channel 7 audio roar of an MCG crowd of 70,000-plus for the siren, with The Fable Singers playing the as the crowd and players celebrated, to have to watch it all back.

There was the Bulldogs players slumped together on the grass. Paddy Ryder with a towel over his teared face. Paddy fucking Ryder, best on ground for St Kilda in a final. Paddy fucking Ryder, in tears, in a St Kilda jumper. The legitimacy of this season has been questioned. Yes, this matters.

A knockout blow had never arrived. Or rather, it wasn’t the Saints that delivered one. It was simply time passing. Too much time, not enough time, just enough time. A year that has been longer than any other has given us the gift of another week.