Some never seem to lose

By Tom Briglia

2nd Elimination Final, 2020
Richmond 5.1, 9.1, 10.4, 12.8 (80)
St Kilda 2.2, 3.6, 5.11, 6.13 (49)
Crowd: 13,778 at Metricon Stadium, Friday, October 9th at 7.50pm

There is an element of inevitability about a season that ends with a finals loss like this. It colours the entire journey that is the season. Over time, any anger or frustration about Cotchin and Lynch, or our for missed shots on goal, or Paddy’s injury, Carlisle’s withdrawal and Long’s suspension will subside. We will likely be left with, well, Richmond is a great fucking team that uses intimidation and physicality to its benefit, and we ran into them in a Semi Final. There’s no magic nor conspiracy there.

There is always a bias to winning form going into Semi Final week. By nature of the current final eight system, Semi Finals pit a loser from the top four, all of a sudden now seen as vulnerable and maybe shown up, against an Elimination Final winner on a high, full of confidence. More Semi Finals have been won by teams in fifth to eighth over recent years, but the number is still in favour of the top four, and it says something that even in the most uncertain of seasons, the top four teams on the ladder have comfortably won through to the Preliminary Finals. They usually finish there for a reason. Finals footy is more uncompromising. Teams need to use any and all of their headroom; that extra gain they found when they needed it during the home and away season that won them games and put them near the top. There’s nothing more dangerous than a team that has been there before and is still hunting.

***

Usually the end of a season has been met with relief. The 2010s descended into something dire and dour. We haven’t had to face the mortality of a season like this for nine years, and even then the entire 2011 season was a cloud of football depression and hatred. But facing even an expected football mortality isn’t any easier when the Tigers go straight out of the centre square for a Lynch goal, an ominous sign featuring the night’s two biggest villains. When you realise that Richmond is very switched on. When Edwards and McIntosh seemingly start shitting out goals, and Bolton gets the right bounce while Paton is taking a shower in his own blood courtesy of going back with the flight into the path of an unapologetic and unflinching Lynch.

Maybe the team was tired (maybe it had tired at three-quarter time last week). Maybe, yes, Richmond is actually just that good. Our ball movement was haphazard from the start. There was no real clear rhyme or reason to the forward forays. Richmond’s defenders raced away with anything that went into the forward 50, so we had to go over them – Savage ran past Butler for a long ball that sailed, and sailed and sailed through, the type of goal we thought he’d be kicking regularly when we gave up Ben McEvoy. Another in due to injury, Marsh was one of the few making an impact, throwing his body around in a physical game that required a Saint, any Saints, to throw their body around. He’s unfashionable, but he was needed at all ends (and heights) of the ground during the night, and he put in a brave effort. The game might have been over a lot earlier without him.

At the fall of every hurried ball forward, Richmond players ran off half-back with ease, knowing exactly where the next player would be if the pressure or momentary dispute came. Cotchin slung Jones by the neck, after a free kick to Billings was awarded, knowing exactly what he was doing. Of course, no punishment, and when Geary was the only one who went to him he was moved on with disdain by Dusty, Castagna and Jayden Short, who had quickly joined Cotchin in the vicinity.

The panic sets in a little. What? No, wait. Give us a second. We’ve just got to sort our shit out. Wait, wait, wait. You trade down quickly. You start to wish for a dignified response. No sooner does that dignity arrive do you suddenly trade back up. No, I want more. I want to be in a Preliminary Final. You become more indignant when Kent gets pushed in the back off the ball in the pocket while Marsh is lining up on the boundary. After all the extra elbows. The umpire saying “bad luck” to Butler about a deliberate out of bounds free paid against. You just want some sort of justice. A fair hearing, especially when it’s all on video, there to review.

***

This should have got 90,000 at the MCG on a Friday night in that early-to-mid September period (even if just on the account of Richmond playing alone). I think I spent all week recovering from the final quarter the week before. There didn’t appear to be as much of a chance to build the anticipation when you don’t have the St Kilda scarves randomly spotted around town. The fresh experience of having been at the MCG on the weekend before for the Elimination Final.

I’m still in a pandemic stupor of being here in mid-October, playing a Semi Final against Richmond on the Gold Coast. If anyone said to us a few years ago we’d be playing at this time of year you’d think we’d manage to play in another Grand Final Draw, and the Replay was drawn. There was still some of the usual finals time feature we just haven’t been used to, the cocktail of looking forward and having those from the past speak about what it would mean and what this year has already meant. Kosi spoke to Kane Cornes on SEN on the Friday morning – if the Saints and Cats won, then the Preliminary Finals would be the exact as 2004.

The Saints sitting on the front pages of the newspapers, including Dan Butler in the clash jumper with black home shorts on the front page of The Age. Shane Savage in the 2014 Stickman pre-season jumper used for team selections on The Age online. All of this after the non-stop chat. Ben Long going the Tribunal. Ben Long’s suspension. Ben Long’s appeal. Carlisle’s leaving the hub for bub. Ryder’s injury. Rowan Marshall’s parents painting cows

Would any of the questions end up mattering? So often finals are blowouts. The only ones who tipped us in the Herald Sun out of 27 were Nick Riewoldt and the Kiss of Death. Daniel Cherny said Richmond by 30. It was 14-0 in The Age.

All of those things can be wiped away in few minutes with some Cotchin and Dusty and lynch aggression and a few fast moments of Shai Bolton and Shane Edwards excellence. One half to pull off the probably impossible.

***

Elimination Finals and Semi Finals aren’t usually the domain of premiership teams, or premiership hopes. That specific thought doesn’t usually run through your head as you watch your team get bullied, but you can feel the gravity of the bottom half of the top eight when Geary drops an easy mark and Butler only just manages to sneak in his snap on the quarter-time siren. We were always going to need just a bit too much to go our way.

As the game went on, it became apparent that that those goals shat out in the first by the Tigers weren’t really shat out. In the second quarter, Edwards’ snap around the corner, Lynch’s set shot from a decent angle. Every time we kicked a goal, the Tigers ran away with the centre clearance. How we really did need Ben Long coming off the back of the centre square and making Dusty or Cotchin think a little about that next clearance. Jake Carlisle hitting back at and fucking around with Lynch off the ball. Paddy Ryder just getting Nankervis out of the fucking way. It’s easy to think they would have made some difference. Or to daydream about what could have been. But for all of the times the ball was vaguely contested, Tigers players were unrelenting. The body went in, the ball was knocked on, handballed, kicked, to a player moving in the right direction every time. Just about every Saint up to Ross and Geary were guilty of that moment of slightly-too-much assessment that immediately put the team on the wrong side of the contest. This wasn’t going to change with the ins and outs. That was a team playing on a different plane of footballing existence.

Like so many of the performances in the back-half of the year, periods of domination were punctuated with low-percentage, awkwardly-placed, high-anxiety entries forward or shots on goal. Extended periods of finding space and time with the ball in the first half of the second and third quarters made little to no impact on the scoreboard. If set shots weren’t taken from tough spots they were shanked. The returned Battle threatened, briefly, to turn the game. King was a presence but finished with 0.3. He and Marshall and Battle couldn’t take the chance to grab the momentum at different points. We kicked 3.6 in the first half, 3.7 in the second half. The goals we did kick required much too much effort. Savage had to kick the ball 60 metres, Butler had to beat the clock, Steele had to curl one in from the boundary, Butler, King and Kent almost fluffed one of the few chances we had right in front of goal. Even that came after a scramble in the square in which the ball ricocheted off Butler, into Battle, into the post.

There was a small, fleeting moment early in the last, Hunter Clark pulled off the best St Kilda move of game early in the last, driving the ball forward from the wing, running through to the contest where it fell, gathered without breaking stride, looked to give off the handball, realised he had more time and space and delivered the ball neatly on his right boot to Membrey, who quickly handballed back over his head to the Seb Ross in the goal square. Somehow it was 17 points. That was as close as it got. And just as you show proof of a pulse, Castagna turns up, Dusty snaps a goal we couldn’t have, and the ending is now just a countdown away.

***

This was our time be taught a lesson. Our turn to literally get hit around. Feel that indignation. Have to sit on it with no on-field recourse until well into next year. Hardwick and Cotchin being fuckheads was something we could laugh at a little from a distance, watching the Cats and the Crows and the Giants all have to deal with it. Now it was our concern. It’s going to be our concern in the future. We’ve had a small taste. Of what “next week” means, and of having that opportunity that can just as easily be extinguished as realised in the same short two hours.

The last Brett Ratten post-match press conference. The last look at the stats for each player this year. The last look at this line-up representing this list of the St Kilda Football Club before the inevitable changes on and off-field. This is the most advanced this season became, a year in which we went to bed on a Thursday night at the beginning of August second on the ladder. Now it is past tense. This is how St Kilda fared during the pandemic. The longest season has reached its end.