Ben Cousins Posts

Jason Gram, fallen Saint

It’s with unease that we’ll reflect on Jason Gram’s career at St Kilda.

According to Michael Gleeson it was already decided by the club to delist him, but, by finding himself in trouble with the law again on Monday, Gram wrote his own epilogue.

He wasn’t a serial offender throughout his career in the way the much higher profile Ben Cousins and Brendan Fevola were. The Andrew Lovett incident happened in his apartment, but that wouldn’t have happened if Andrew Lovett wasn’t there. It’s only out in the open now that he had been suspended indefinitely by the club early in September after, well, a Jason Gram incident (or, series of smaller ones – as far as we know). But after the stalking charges he faced very publicly earlier in the week he’ll be remembered by being mentioned in rubbish jokes by partisan idiots still bringing up the “St Kilda schoolgirl”.

Had his personal issues not encroached upon his footballing career, we’d remember him instead for his frustrating Jason Gram Specials that hurtled aimlessly through the air to no-one in particular. We’d remember him for his breakout 2006 season in which he really got his run and rebound game together, which earned him 2nd place in the Trevor Barker Award and us all incredibly excited about his future. We’d remember him for his vital role in the 2009 backline;  and particularly for his 2009 Grand Final performance. Whilst he was one of many culprits who blew a good chance at goal that day, he tied for the Norm Smith Medal – only to lose it on countback to Paul Chapman. If the Saints had won that day – and it’s a big, hugely irrelevant “could have” now – Jason Gram may well have been the best player on the day the club won its second premiership.

Instead, from the point in time that may have seen him go down in football history, he was patchy. The Jason Gram Specials never went away, and injury conspired against him too.

I feel uneasy writing about this kind of thing. Ultimately, this is about someone else’s personal issue, whether or not we support him because he is/was a St Kilda player, or whether we’re jumping on to Facebook threads to try and relate this to Stephen Milne being accused of rape eight years ago. He might be an AFL footballer but he’s also a fallible human being. As a fellow fallible human being I hope he can get over his issues. I only know about his situation what almost everyone else does, sprinkled very lightly with insider information that’s questionable. Either way I can’t claim at all to know exactly what the situation is. We all know that it’s seriously effecting him – that’s public knowledge. And it’s a messy place he’s in.

As is the nature professional sports and their fans, there’s all sorts of attitudes towards Gram being offered on forums, Facebook threads and Twitter, despite people not knowing or understanding the mechanics of the situation. You can pity him – some may even genuinely be able to empathise with him – for the kind of psychological state he would be in right now. Some have criticised him for throwing away a privileged lifestyle and career. Then, of course, there’s that camp that are cracking gags about the club’s culture.

From a purely football perspective, a lot of fans could take or leave his presence on the list, and I’d tend to be one of those. At 28, realistically he won’t be there the next time the Saints are rumbling the top end of the ladder, and his absence opens up a spot for youngsters like Siposs, Newnes, Dunell and Ferguson. Gram’s currency as a St Kilda player, given where the club was, probably reached its use-by date at the end of the 2010 season.

But that’s an easy thing to say in hindsight, and likewise it’s easy to say things from afar as supporters and observers. None of us except Jason Gram himself can really know what he’s feeling. He deserves the same degree of empathy we would give to anyone else we’re not personally familiar with, but there’s a balance required here. I don’t think you can just treat this as a purely football issue; we have to recognise that it goes far beyond that. But it goes far beyond us, too.

Polo grabs his second chance

Guest writer Kieran Francis takes a look at the rejuvenated Dean Polo, who has enjoyed a string of good games since his return to the St Kilda side several weeks ago. You can follow him on Twitter @kieran_francis, and check out his blog, St Kilda FC 2011.

Back at the 2004 Under 18 Championships, Vic Country squared up against South Australia in an early group match.

The South Australian side contained a young, damaging midfielder named Ryan Griffen. Vic Country’s coaching team handed the job of shutting down Griffen to an ungainly, scrawny-looking kid from Gippsland. After completely nullifying Griffen whilst helping himself to plenty of the ball, Dean Polo thrust himself into the calculations of recruiters for the 2004 AFL Draft.

He achieved top 10 results in the agility run, beep test and 3km time trial at the AFL Draft Camp, and recruiters at Richmond saw enough potential in Polo to take him at Pick 20 (Griffen was selected by the Bulldogs at Pick 3).

After a year of developing at the Richmond-aligned VFL side Coburg during 2005, Polo starred for the VFL side in early 2006 and was finally selected for his debut in the Dreamtime game against Essendon in Round 6.

Five minutes after the final siren went, he was standing on the presentation stage next to Craig Willis after being awarded the Yiooken award for best on ground. He had kicked three goals, had 28 disposals and been the main reason why the Tigers defeated their archrivals on the big stage. Richmond fans started getting excited about the future of this talented midfielder.

A little over four years later, however, Polo was delisted from Richmond. His career at Punt Road never got going; despite playing every game for the rest of the 2006 season, Polo fell out of favour and only played another 39 games for the Tigers in four seasons.

As the gloss of his debut game wore off, queries were raised about Polo’s disposal efficiency and decision-making. He was never a prolific ball winner, averaging only 16 disposals a game during his time at Richmond.

The final nail in the coffin of his Richmond career was when Polo was stood down for a week after being involved in the infamous Ben Cousins-Daniel Connors punch-up at a Sydney hotel in early 2010.

Polo only appeared three more times for the Tigers after that incident and was dropped despite a solid 19-possession game against Collingwood in Round 17. It was his last game for the club, as two months later he was culled from the Tigers list. Most expected that it would be the last they saw of Polo at AFL level.

Some people had other ideas, however.

In a draft day shock, Polo was the last player selected in the 2010 draft, at Pick 103 by St Kilda. It has since emerged that Ross Lyon was an admirer of Polo’s abilities. Whilst Polo’s weaknesses are often publicised, his strengths are what drew Lyon to giving him a second chance.

Standing at 187cm, Polo had always been a great contested mark for his size. His ability to win the ball in contested situations was also an important factor in the recruiting department’s decision. Lyon obviously felt that Polo, who isn’t quite 25 years of age, had his development stunted in the Richmond system and that it was possible for him to reach his potential in the St Kilda set-up and be an important squad player. Ross, as usual, was right.

When selected by the Saints, the decision to take Polo was not only ridiculed by Tigers supporters but also by a majority of Saints fans. He didn’t appear throughout the NAB Cup and the start of the AFL season because of a thumb injury, and it wasn’t until the knee injury of Hayes that Polo was mentioned in St Kilda supporter circles as someone who could play a role this season.

Having recovered from his injury, Polo made his debut for Sandringham in Round 5 of the VFL. After two solid but not overly impressive performances for the Zebras, Polo was a shock selection for the Round 8 match against the Hawks. He announced himself with a goal in the first quarter. Despite the Saints losing by five goals, Polo had a solid debut.

Polo was OK over the next few weeks, but not to the point where he could keep selection in the side. After a three-round hiatus, Polo was reintroduced to the side for the game against the Kangaroos and hasn’t looked back since.

He has become a very important player in the squad. The injury to Hayes meant there has been a spot available in the midfield rotation, and Polo’s performances over the past few weeks have gone a long way to claiming that spot.

The ability of Polo to come off the bench and give the more prolific ball winners a break whilst locking down an opponent is understated. His work in pack situations has also been exceptional.

Averaging a career-high three tackles a game, he has slotted in seamlessly to “Saints Footy” with his defensive pressure and repeated efforts. His handballing out of a pack in a contested situation is elite.

An example of these traits was seen late in the first quarter of the game against West Coast when Polo lost control of the footy at the top of St Kilda’s attacking 50-metre arc. Instead of letting the Eagles rebound through the corridor, Polo applied pressure to two Eagles opponents respectively, stripped them of the ball and fired out a handball to Raph Clarke, who hit Nick Riewoldt on the chest inside 50.

Polo’s worth to the team was also highlighted during Friday’s 103-point romp against Adelaide. His elite contested handballing was a factor in at least four St Kilda goals, including a direct goal assist to Stephen Milne early in the first quarter. Fifteen metres out from the St Kilda goal, Polo won a possession in a huge pack of players and in the same movement fired out a handball to Milne who snapped truly.

He also laid a career-high seven tackles on Friday night. These are the kind of unheralded efforts that are starting to earn Dean Polo respect at St Kilda.

It remains to be seen how much the relatively young Polo can develop in the St Kilda system. Can he make the step up from important squad player to gun midfielder? The majority of doubters to his selection in the draft have been silenced and it’s looking like another Lyon decision may prove to be a masterstroke.

St Kilda and Fremantle: The Bizarre Rivalry

Edit: This post has had an “update” with a couple of additional minutiae, in Grand Final Week of 2013, here.

St Kilda and Fremantle share one of the most bizarre “rivalries” in the AFL.

As the two least successful clubs in VFL/AFL history to date, it’s not all-important clashes between competition juggernauts that this rivalry has been based on.

Rather, it has been a mixture of the unique, incredible and questionable, with occasional flashes of both genuinely brilliant and sadly woeful football being played.

It began immediately – although inconspicuously – in 1995, when Fremantle played their debut AFL match in the Ansett Australia Cup against the Saints at East Fremantle Oval. Whilst the match itself was normal enough (St Kilda would win by 35 points), this would be the only time (to date) the Dockers would actually play in Fremantle in a competitive AFL match.

In Round 14 of the following season, St Kilda would break through for its first win at Subiaco, and in Western Australia – of course, against Fremantle – in a game which produced great goals from both sides.

The next clash between the two came on ANZAC Day of 1997, with Fremantle – in 10th place and the Saints in 16th – weathering a late St Kilda challenge to win by a straight kick. The return bout was played on a ridiculously blustery day at Waverley in Round 20 of that year, with Fremantle in 10th place (again) going into the match whilst St Kilda was second on percentage, on its way to a second minor premiership. The Saints that time won a scrappy game by 13 points after the Dockers got within a point in the final term.

St Kilda co-captain Stewart Loewe would be stretchered off in Round 9 of 1998 at the WACA after an awkward fall in which his head ended up making contact with his knee. Despite a thrilling running goal from ruckman Peter Everitt, the 4th-placed Saints were overrun by the 13th-placed Dockers in the final term.

After several years of minor quirks, things were about to get really weird.

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