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Well, that was weird

Round 18, 2014
St Kilda 4.3, 9.6, 15.14, 17.16 (118)
Fremantle 1.1, 3.2, 5.6, 9.6 (60)
Crowd: 16,594 at Etihad Stadium, Saturday, 18th July at 4.40pm

We’d reached a point last week where you we genuinely looked like we wouldn’t win another game this year. And that was after 11 consecutive losses, with the general consensus being that next year will be just as difficult. We were at the point where you’re so far into the dark times you can neither look forward and will yourself towards the light, nor look back to the light coming from the good times in your past.

I was resigned to exhausting myself again by writing another draining review, in which we get completely broken down – by at least one of the opposition or ourselves – and talk about how the future is still essentially an ominous question mark. But instead I’ve been sitting here trying to soak in as much post-match coverage, replays, interviews and ill-advised forum posts as I can. Because St Kilda tore apart premiership fancy Fremantle by 58 points, and in the process became one of only two teams to have beaten a side 16 places above them on the ladder. The last time we were on the bottom of the ladder and beat the team in 2nd spot was in 1985 against the Bulldogs, and there were only 12 teams in the competition then.

Obviously the incredible thing about this win is…well, yes, it was incredible that St Kilda won in the first place, but the way they completely blanketed the Dockers and scored heavily themselves (reaching over 100 for the first time this year) was simply unbelievable, and more to the point, bemusing. This review isn’t going to take you through the epic ebbs and flows of the drama that was St Kilda’s first win in three months (to the day). I thought that if/when it ever came, it would be against the odds and take everything to barely get over the line. But this one just took off and get going. Stuff just kept happening.

Corporate Stadium can be  a putrid game to watch the footy, and this was the least popular match in a round in which the fixturing had already pleased no one. One of only two games or not, the 4.40pm time slot is arguably more of a black hole than any other – lost between Saturday afternoon and Saturday night, when people are in transition, heading out, eating dinner, or taking a disco nap. On top of this particular Saturday being particularly bleak, having the Concrete Monolith roof closed anywhere near daylight hours – or ever, really – makes for a woefully sterile atmosphere in low drawing games. There’s no charm aesthetically to the place; there’s no history behind it. It’s just a lot of overpriced, grey seats and the Medallion Club, which thinks it’s the MCC and whose staff try to match their counterparts for tightarsery. The Perth Stadium plans this week revealed intentions for a 60,000-seater, with the potential to expand that to 80,000. That is what Etihad Stadium well and truly should have been in the first place. Too small for anyone to be enthusiastic about it for bigger or finals matches; too small to be an inclusive stadium in which it’s easy to get a decent seat for those bigger games. That’s before we get to the stadium deals forced upon the clubs. And that’s the only option the AFL gave us as a stage for this game in Melbourne away from the MCG, to be shared by 10 Victorian clubs.

Easier to say all this when just about every home game you go to now as a Saints supporter is mostly empty. When it’s going off it can be a cauldron, but this is St Kilda in a post-2009/10 Grand Finals world. Aside from myself, Freo supporters on the route 55 tram into the ground outnumbered St Kilda supporters 1-0. I’ve said before that obviously Brunswick West and Royal Park aren’t St Kilda heartland, but you realise there are problems when the Dockers more of a presence there (or anywhere here, really). There was more purple around Spencer Street and Bourke Street too in the lead up to the game, and I was starting to really get worried. Perhaps that 2001 record for our lowest home crowd there was really under threat. Having somehow cleared that against the Gold Coast, with the expected result against a state’s second side and in the dud time slot I thought the next challenge to that would be the Dockers. (Fun fact: Fremantle logos registered with IP Australia during the formation of the club include Fremantle Dolphins, Fremantle Courage (?) and Fremantle Hammer (??))

The wonderful goodwill generated by Lenny’s retirement I thought might have dragged a few more of our 30,000 members to the game, but it seems like it took dodgy ground management to save us from our own worst turnout, declaring a dubious total of 16,594. The Lenny wave instead rocketed the team itself to ridiculous heights that no one saw coming, and gave us a timely reminder of what it feels like to have anticipation and momentum throughout a game of footy.

Because unlike the last time we won, which was literally billions of years ago, this match didn’t need be rescued before we could even think about taking home the four points. In fact, when was the last time a game wasn’t in a perilous position early? How familiar the feeling of the game being over so soon has become, with for so many weeks the quarter time siren as good as the final siren.

The sign of intent that the side was switched on from the start was embodied in Dempster dropping back into the oncoming Pavlich tractor and getting knocked out. He was out before he hit the ground, and for those of us who didn’t get a clear view of the actual contact (I certainly didn’t and it happened near where I was sitting, so I assume that goes for just about everyone) it was a nervous few moments as he remained without movement. As it was mentioned post-match, his effort was spoken about in the quarter time huddle as an example of the what was expected and required of the players if they wanted to continue on with the work.

Whilst Dempster was down, the play had gone on and My Favourite Hair in the AFL had taken a mark before things were halted. It took more than five minutes for Dempster to be looked at properly and taken from the field but everyone managed to remember what had happened and Roo resumed his place and kicked the goal.

Good start, aside from the fact we’d lost one of the cornerstones of the defence (regardless of what you think of that fact). And I mean “good start” in the sense that we’d kicked the first goal. Cool. We did that against the Cats, remember.

The crowd got a sniff of the intent of side over the next few minutes, with the side in turn getting a sniff that Freo might have been a little complacent. Lenny’s tackles in defence brought the crowd into it, and then Billings hunted down Sutcliffe on half-forward in front of the members but Leigh Fisher was giving his old side donuts and didn’t pay anything. Armo earned a free kick with his own tackle soon after, and his give off saw Newnes bullet a pass to Murdoch on the 50-metre arc.

Murdoch kicked the goal with a really nice long shot. I like him playing in the front half because he’s got a solid body and a good set of hands, and he has a huge kick on him. Those qualities mean he’s more dangerous as a scoring threat across more of the attacking area, with I think three of his four shots from long range. He finished with 1.3 but together with 11 touches and six marks the numbers aren’t bad for a kid playing his 13th game. If he can hit the scoreboard that often it would go a huge way to fleshing out the versatility in his game. (I just hope this isn’t another kid who’s constantly gonna tighten up in front of goal.)

Dunstan was next, again rewarded for a good tackle and again kicking the goal from a decent range. He actually kicked both of his goals from a good distance, one set shot and one on the run at the peak of the third quarter onslaught. I don’t think we think of him of him as the guy who’s going to kick long, but rather the inside mid who might kick 40 at best on the rare occasion they’re called on to get some decent distance. Probably his only real knock at draft time was his kicking, so the way he scored the two goals were a pleasant surprise. He finished with 26 touches, too, following a period in which his output had dipped a little (he hadn’t had 20+ touches since the Port game in Round 12). It was a timely reminder of what he’s already capable of.

In fact, Richo’s on his bandwagon too (who isn’t?), having to stop himself from saying outright this morning on SEN that Luke would be captain of the club at some point in the future. Jack Newnes didn’t do any harm to his own prospects of being 2018-2022 Premiership Captain, with 25 touches off half-back and across the wing and eight tackles, but Richo obviously has his money on Dunstan being the man. I’d still be keen on the co-captaincy and for the next potentially successful era to forever come under the banner of the “Newnes-Dunstan Era”. So I think the wider consensus is we’ve got Dunstan, then Newnes, with Armitage not far behind. Geary is the smokey, unless he ends up at the Cats. I never, ever, ever thought I would say that sentence.

Speaking of bandwagons, how about the BIG RHYS BANDWAGON? A few weeks ago it had broken down and some were questioning why the trade-in to Port wasn’t taken up at the end of last year. If anything it’s broken down now because it’s under the weight of all 16,000 at the ground and anyone watching at home trying to grab a seat. I’ve unashamedly been on his bandwagon since I watched him win the 2009 Grand Final Sprint, although I can at least say that, like many Saints supporters and unlike just about everyone outside of the club, I actually followed him closely instead of just reading up on that solitary dot point on his CV.

So it was brilliant to see him kicking his goals from his shots, but more importantly knowing exactly where to work to across half-forward. It’s clearly, clearly the best way use him, allowing him to use his pace and reach to run off his opponent get a set of clear hands to the footy. As I said with Murdoch – but it’s much more important to the side in Rhys’s case – his ability to find that space and mark across half-forward and kick well over 50 metres (and accurately, as he did on Saturday) means he’s a scoreboard threat in more parts of the forward line.

And again, as it proved a fortnight ago against Carlton, when Roo was freed to move higher up the ground it meant the side had arguably their best field kicker distributing the ball and allowed Rhys to take responsibility in being the focal point, as well as other players being able to move into dangerous positions, rather than being terrified of treading into the path of My Favourite Hair. The best example of this came shortly after quarter time, when Roo led wide outside of the arc and took the mark. He waited patiently for an option to open up, and I dare say if it was someone else with the footy they would have quickly tried plonking it on top of his sensational hair with two other guys next to him. But Roo waited, and if you watch the replay you’ll see Rhys standing just off his man and subtly pointing to the small space he’s about to run to. Just as Sir Robert and Lenny had done so many times for him, Roo placed a short pass perfectly into Rhys’s path and Rhys finished it off nicely.

It was brilliant to see the Favourite Hair-Bandwagon set up finally working in a meaningful way. Oh yeah, and Roo had 30 touches and kicked four goals. Cheers.

I’m not ready to call it that Rhys has “arrived”, but 14 marks, 19 touches and three goals (all in the first half) was a great return. His third goal, from the fifty metre penalty in the shadow of half-time to put us up by 40 points was a rocket and well and truly stamped his impact on the game when it was there to be taken by the proverbial.

It was also that goal that sealed the surrealism of the situation. For the first half, anyway – by that time I was absolutely shitting myself because the crowd was so up and about and the margin big enough for people to be feeling great about things, but still not enough that Freo couldn’t reign it in in the second half. One of the tough things about the plummet to the bottom of the ladder is knowing that just about no lead is safe.

I’d been sitting in my seats in Aisle 33 on my own for the first half, sharing observations and cynical feelings about St Kilda’s prospects for the rest of the game with the woman a couple of seats down from my brother’s and mine. “They must be letting us win,” she said wryly, between our glances of “How is this happening?”. Something had to be up. We were leading by 40 points at half-time, and the idea that Ross had told them to sit back a little seemed more likely than us genuinely outplaying and out-willing a Fremantle side looking to win their ninth in a row and shore up a place in the top two.

I joined Rich for a beer at the Locker Room at half-time, which turned into out vantage point for the third quarter onslaught. And that was our onslaught, by the way – not the expected Fremantle comeback. I hadn’t been that nervous at a game as I was at half-time for a long, long while. I needed that (next) drink desperately (I’d already had one or two at my seats but, you know, I needed heaps more). Was this going to be this generation’s Round 9, 2000 loss to the Bulldogs, when the winless side gave up a 31-point lead at the final change and left Max Hudghton in tears? I remember as an almost-12-year-old watching on TV with my Dad and brother, and going to bed just before quarter time because I was too nervous, only to wake up the next day, go outside and fetch The Age, and see in disbelief (and then through my own tears) the brief on the front page bearing the crushing news. Or perhaps its Round 5, 2002 match against the Swans? I still remember Dee Dee (Dunleavy, as in Grubby & Dee Dee), who we sat behind in the members on Level 2 for several years, saying at three-quarter time to her family, “I’d hate to think what would happen if we lost”. We watched as the young side faltered and relinquished the lead late, only to snatch a draw from the jaws of victory. Those games were part of a lowly era in which we couldn’t be sure that the players would see out any lead, nor keep calm when challenged and guide things home safely.

And so it was that I expected a nerve wracking second half. Even if we held on, surely it would be just that, and if not, well…

But Armo quickly snapped a goal from an angle close to where he kicked his third term goal against the Demons in the opening round. Out to 46 points. Surely not? Pav with the quick reply brought things back to earth at least a little, before Jack Billings fumbled in the pocket but his quick thinking saw the ball end up with Roo in the goal square for another.

That Pav goal was the last of us staying tethered to our status as wooden spoon heirs for the afternoon. What happened through the remainder of the term will almost certainly remain the highlight of a lean season; ideally one we can look back on, however, and say that it went a long way to making this club a power again. For now, that’s a long way off.

We saw the absolute best of this season compacted into this quarter. Throughout this game, too, but this is where it took off. Indeed, we can almost boast the embarrassing riches of being able to say “we should have won by more” with a tinge of lament in our tone; 6.8 for the quarter with many of those shots very gettable.

It was interesting that a few guys (namely Lenny, Richo and Armo on The Sunday Footy Show) mentioned that the previous week had seen a few decent signs. Look, if I’m honest, wouldn’t have thought so. You wouldn’t to with a quick look at the score – had Armo missed that shot at goal with 90 seconds we would have been at 2.16, which would have had us pacing another effort from the wooden spoon year of 1985 – 2.17 against Carlton in Round 2 in 140-point loss at Moorabbin. Not to mention North had kicked 13.14 themselves, and had the game sewn up at the first change.

The willingness to compete and hunt in numbers was what ultimately separated the teams. Ours certainly isn’t blessed to too much skill, but it went above and beyond in being first at the ball when it was in dispute and spreading hard into space when we had the ball. Without Sandi the Freo midfield were furthermore on the back foot, and even without Jack Steven ours still dominated from the centre and across the ground. Dunstan, Lenny, Joey and Armo all racked up big numbers, with Lenny and Armo finIshing with 17 tackles between them. Mav Weller had six tackles and made an impact up forward, setting up Joey for his snap goal in the third quarter with a deft handball back over his head out of traffic.

Probably a strange thing to note, but should that third quarter burst go down as the peak of this season, then Farren Ray’s two goals within 30 seconds play are the summit. The high, curling ball was followed by a quick break out of the middle, with the chain featuring Mav and Sav, and a snap from the left pocket. Faz has returned to some of his better form at times throughout this season, and he did it in just about every part of the ground on Saturday. Amazing how he seems to slip under everybody’s radar; I think he might be worth more around the club than we give him credit for.

I mentioned Sav in there; he actually finished the game with the equal most disposals, alongside My Favourite Hair. Again, a revelation that came out of the wash-up, but Richo and Armo spoke about Sav getting a dressing down from the group and how he’d taken it on himself since then to get himself right. It also helped that Richo started him further back, allowing him to be get his hands on the footy and use his run and long kicking to set things up from there, not to mention to push up and supply the forwards also (see Faz’s second goal where he’s received the ball charging off half-back just forward of centre). Things will change at the other end I’m sure, but right now – even with Acres having an injury-interrupted season – the McEvoy trade is paying off.

Which brings us to the ruck situation (at least for the purposes of the flow of this review). Longer enjoyed the closest to free reign at stoppages we’ve seen a St Kilda ruckman enjoy for several years. I’m somewhere in between with Longer and Hickey playing in the same team. They certainly couldn’t now, as neither as probably quite developed enough just yet across the ground. Interestingly, it’s the third forward that for the time being is so important. Is Bruce, for instance, effective enough that Billy can drop forward whilst Rhys gives him a chop-out, and the forward line can still function effectively? Whether or not Billy and Hickey can provide a decent target up forward, or at least have a presence around the ground, it will effect the forward set up also. We won’t know for a while though due to Hickey’s injury. Or injuries, rather. I must say I’m just starting to get a little worried about that.

I quite liked Bruce up forward. Hair-wise, it’s a great complement to Roo. As Richo said, he didn’t get huge numbers but simply his presence (particularly the third quarter) was enough to worry Fremantle, as well as allow for more space to Roo and Rhys. Hopefully he can develop his own influence on the scoreboard.

I think special mention needs to go to Sam Fisher also. He said on the club website that he would play for another two or three years if the body could hold up for him, and if he could maintain the kind of impact he had on Saturday. He’s a very necessary calm influence on a side that is still going to get a lot of pressure coming the wrong way for a while yet.

But yes, it’s easy to get carried away with a performance like that. Everyone played well, really. It was a great day at the footy for a St Kilda supporter. It was three months to the day since that Saturday night in April when the Saints stormed over the top of the Bombers in the second half to put at three wins from the first five games. At the time, facing a winless Brisbane outfit the following Friday, it felt like we might already be on our way back up. That we might have avoided the cliff that everyone told us we were heading for.

Well six days later we certainly found that cliff. Instead of 4-2, we’re now 4-13 and 18th. I really don’t know how much closer we are to being on our way back because of Saturday. We certainly shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves over this one. Freak occurrence? Sign of things to come? Lenny-inspired effort? I think it’s all of those things, but I don’t know how much of each. So for now, just enjoy Rhys running around grabbing everything and kicking goals. Enjoy Dunstan willing himself at contests. Enjoy Newnes setting things up and looking to put on another tackle. More than anything, enjoy Lenny, because he won’t be there much longer. Fuck it, just enjoy it.

In This Round…Round 9

On the Thursday of each week of St Kilda’s season, we take a stroll down memory lane and take a look at memorable clash in St Kilda history from the upcoming round.

Western Bulldogs vs St Kilda, Round 9, 2000
Western Bulldogs 3.5, 9.5, 10.7, 16.9 (105)
St Kilda 4.1, 7.5, 15.8, 16.8 (104)
Crowd: 35,505 at Colonial Stadium, Friday, May 5, 7.40pm

When St Kilda stormed over the top of Geelong to take out a soul-stirring win in Round 10 of 1999, they moved to third on the ladder with their seventh victory of the year, and near premiership favouritism.

Not a year later, the Saints, under now second-year coach Tim Watson, would be winless in Season 2000 by the time they met Bulldogs on a Friday night at Colonial Stadium in Round 9; going into that game they would have won just three of their last 20 matches.

This would be the game that gave St Kilda fans the unforgettable image of Max Hudghton walking off the ground in tears, after the Saints led by 31 points at three-quarter time, only to capitulate in the final term and lose by one point.

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