Daniel McKenzie Posts

Breathing space

Round 13, 2018
Gold Coast 4.2, 9.7, 11.12, 11.12 (78)
St Kilda 3.2, 4.6, 6.11, 11.14 (80)
Crowd: 10,181 at Metricon Stadium, Saturday, June 16th at 4.25pm

Thanks to the likes of the Dees, Bombers and Carlton’s own demise, the hounds of the media had not been as frenzied as you would have expected when it came to a team that some pundits (I’m looking at you RoCo) had tipped to be finish as high as the top 5.

That said, the spotlight had been ratcheted up; anxious, cautious, loyal Saints fans usually reserved to ciggie breaks in the parking lot had suddenly found their voice even in the public spheres of talkback radio and such.

It must be said that, despite carrying along several fresh newbies, the side had at least – aside from the Swans game – stemmed the bleeding in a performance sense. Against the Pies, Tigers, and Eagles (in Perth), there were definite takeaways however vague.

And despite the debacle that was the Swans game, you felt that the side – and the Coaching team/Match Committee – had found a new course for this season. Ed Phillips? Yes. Hunter Clark? Yup. Throw in Josh Battle, Bailey Rice, Coffield, presumably Brandon White pending health and an un-concussed Paddy McCartin. There were suddenly some green buds from which could be nurtured, to give this side a whole new complexion. There was a sense of a small silver lining.

And it’s with that in mind that so many loyal fans were baffled beyond belief when the team sheet was handed in for the now critical Suns game. In some ways, it should have seemed predictable. With the wolves at the door, out goes Phillips and Coffield; and some of Richo’s faves slide back in.

In my mind at least, the significance of this game had been dulled down in previous weeks as I had mentally resolved that this was essentially, if not a “rebuild” year, then definitely a “rethink” and a shift of course. The W-L columns had receded into the background. It’s about finding players and, more importantly, developing them. Great, get a McCartin, get a Billings, but once they are there you have to do right by them; they’re not sea monkeys.

Granted, of course, the looming prospect of the issue of the coach coming to a head did amp up the hype leading into this game. My thoughts on Richo? Generally speaking, I don’t think he comes across with the conviction or the strength that the figurehead of an AFL club needs to exude. For the most part this year he has reflected the fans – a lot of head scratching. And to top it off, it would be easier to swallow or empathise with if not were it for the incessant positivity and hot air that was coming out his mouth (amongst others) about our Finals chances and the five year plan and bla bla, in the lead up to Round 1.

Three quarter-time. Staring down at a 31 point deficit. Somewhere between evacuating the homemade rosemary and mozzarella pizza out of the oven, and finishing off the sriracha honey sauce for the chicken nuggets, I overhear the gleeful cries that Daniel McKenzie has got us back within a kick of hitting the front.

A remarkable turnaround. And despite anything and everything, this was a marvellous display of character from a group who have been stamped accused of a lack of maturity, leadership, resilience, et al. Of course, whether this is a flash in the pan in that regard, only time will tell. And it has been well documented how insipid the Suns have been in last quarters this year.

This is a pocket of air, of much needed breathing space whilst the likes of Richo, Finnis, Hammill and the rest of the lackies around the football department flounder and grasp for life jackets whilst the Club is being turned upside by Lethlean (and god knows who else at City Hall etc). And for me, that’s that. As I mentioned before, in Phillips, Clark, Coffield, White, Battle (who again stood out on Saturday night) and to a lesser extent Rice, the Club has stumbled upon (not by design) some of the tonic or the pathway by which we can navigate out of this mess that we’ve created ourselves.

That works both ways too. The relative success of that shiny new bunch has only further underlined the shortcomings of the likes of Mav, Sav, Geary, Newnes, Dunstan, Lonie and the rest of the deadwood that I can’t even stomach conjuring up from the depths of my memory. With all due respect, it was damn telling (and plain nice) that it was Gresh and not Mav, who was able to kick the game clinching goal. For those playing along – Mav actually had a set shot from about 50 to put the Saints in front with about 1:45 left on the clock.

 

Time to recalibrate, restock, rethink

Round 10, 2017
Bulldogs 2.2, 5.6, 10.9, 10.8 (90)
St Kilda 2.1, 3.2, 5.5, 7.8 (50)
Crowd: 34,685 at Etihad Stadium, Saturday, May 27th at 1.45pm

I think the Bye has come at the perfect time. Not just for players, but for fans, administrators, Twitterati, trolls. We played the Premiers and we got TKO’d in almighty fashion; we were unsteady on our feet even in the opening stages.

There’s a flimsy quality to the team defence right now; a lack of incisiveness in our attacking movements. Two weeks off, may just give us a fighter’s chance to make the Crows sweat over on their deck.

I’m not sure the Dogs are the titans that reigning premiers of the recent past presented themselves as (see Hawthorn, Geelong) but they are the gold-standard in running football. And they ran us ragged.

By the end they were queuing up to rub salt into the wound. Stringer had 5 goals of his own, but there were 8 other goal kickers. The forty point margin felt flattering. Midfielders and utilities alike were pouring forward, sharing the ball and finding space with ease. Even debutante Tim English looked like he was going to score at one point.

With this in mind it’s apt that Jack Newnes was our best. He had 35 touches (7 marks, 8 tackles and a goal) and he didn’t stop running. Most at The Club claim he’s our best in that space (alongside Captain Jarryn) and it rang true yesterday. He was possibly the only of our engine room that could go the distance running-wise.

Generally, we looked slow. Our tackles were broken. Tom Boyd was sidestepping through us like David Campese, we made Daily Bale look like Magic Johnson.

It wasn’t until very late in the last term that we were able to replicate our own arc-to-arc run and carry. Minchington, Acres, Gresh, Minchington, to Gresh (or something). What happened? Gresh mistakenly turned down a set shot from 40 meters in order to try to hit McCartin with a flaccid drop-punt that ended up in a no-mark and the umpteenth potential rebound for the Dogs.

That felt like a telling snapshot of the game. Good intentions, effort, but no efficiency in any of the execution. Even the chain of handpasses between Gresh, Minchington and Acres seemed to happen at a snail-like pace. I think Hugh Goddard recovered from knee surgery and re-injured his knee several times in that space of time.

That was the fourth quarter, when the result was beyond doubt, but the real damage had already been done.

The thing I keep coming back to is: we keep hearing from all and sundry about how good our depth is now. Steele must have done about 5 articles/interview alone describing this. Depth is one thing, but depth in quality is another. We’ve witnessed what a big drop off there is between Webster and the rest of our other back flankers; half-forward flankers continue to get rotated in and out of the side on a near weekly basis; Longer presence instead of Hickey presents crimes to ball sports around the globe. And those midfielders? They’re just not there.

In regards to our midfield: More often than not this year though we haven’t gotten good enough returns from the supporting cast. And by supporting cast, I mean anyone outside of Jack Steven and Seb Ross. On the, oft-contemplative walk across the Etihad bridge yesterday I voiced how “if you lock down Jack Steven you are 90% of the way to beating St Kilda”. For all his flaws, and I’ll come to them, the three time Trevor Barker Award winner still possesses skills that our others can only hope to achieve in AFL Evolution. The break-neck speed, the relentless running; our midfield outside of his output there can look decidedly blue collar.

And yesterday was the complete crystallization of that reality.

The full-time stats describe that we had 32 more tackles than the Dogs (we had 95), yet our pressure game was completely dismantled. Tackles were laid but they were of a Jack Lonie quality: a nuisance and half-baked.

Yet things looked so promising early. Two of our early goals (Billings and McKenzie) came from virtually point blank after we had gotten through and out the back of the Dogs defence. This usually signals that you’ve picked apart the other team’s system. The backline trio of Geary, Roberton and particularly Carlise were marking nearly all the Dogs entries, and from there, we seemed to have options galore on the spread.

Per our whole 2017 to date we didn’t make hay whilst the sun was shining. Paddy and Gresh were the main offenders; the latter missing a set shot from barely 20 meters out. An ensemble of Mav, Billings, Newnes, Gilbert etc continued to run rings around each other in order to handball or shank to the next stationary person. Some of it was worthy of Benny Hill background music.

It wasn’t just ominous in that we didn’t take our opportunities, it was that you knew the Dogs would respond with vigour. The Bulldogs story this year has largely revolved around slow starts, clawing back and then just doing enough. They hit 4th and 5th gears on Saturday.

Johannisen was outstanding. He was the main conductor in their half backline and midfield sweeping and cutting through our press like butter. Murphy, Easton Wood, Caleb Daniel and many others got in on the act and ran rings around and through us.

That was the startling thing actually. The Dogs’ early goals did come on the rebound, but by and large we were able to hustle back and force them wide. I’m presuming that’s what Richo was referring to in the post-match when he said he was happy with our “method” particularly in a defensive sense. But the shift in the game came when the St Kilda pressure cooled such that the Dogs could routinely go through us; handballs were being made in the tackle, sidestepping galore, speed and lots of it.

There are so many numbers that are dished out and consumed en masse these days. If you dive into any stats break down of a game or a team, you can find yourself in some sort of rabbit hole inception type scenario. However, one stat that does seem bang on is our 5-5 win loss ratio. That sits us in 10th (as of Sunday May 28th 8:05AM). Middle of the ladder, middle of the road; fighting, alongside the a cluster of sides, to sneak into the very bottom of the eight.

Currently only one of our wins comes against a side above us (Giants); against the Cats and Dogs we ended up woefully short. Four three quarters against the Cats we withstood the heat, and we went toe-to-toe. Yesterday was much different. We got dismantled and manhandled, and our defensive system was picked apart with ease.

The main conundrum right now is, what the approach is in regards to the team’s outcome for this year. I feel like that answer will dictate a lot of selection dilemmas that are starting to arise on a weekly basis. Up forward presents the most obvious questions. Do we go with Bruce? How much time does Riewoldt spend up forward? Are we prepared to develop Paddy McCartin in the 1s whilst he’s still learning, still adapting to the Big Time?

This might be stating the obvious to some but, we are not going to win the premiership this year – as open as the competition is. Of course, I would be happy to be proven wrong on that one (#freemanwildcardsecondhalfoftheyear). So if we’re not going to claim the big prize, and that is what the Road To 2018/Whatever five-year-plan we’re on now boils down to, then what are we doing this year? I think most would agree that Paddy, Goddard, Freeman are (if fit) must-haves in our next contending side. Rice, White, Marshall and a few others might be too, pending opportunity. The current lineup still feels like it has a fair few placeholder players; they’re there and they’re decent, but when it comes to the crunch they’re not what we need. Are we going to just bunker down and hope that the last legs of the elder statesmen can pull this team into the finals?

So that’s where we’re at. Different parts of the team are currently pulling in different directions. McCartin still needs time, as does McKenzie (if we think he’s going to make it), as do several other players who ultimately will need to come in if we’re serious about winning a flag. Fans, however, are going to have to be content with said players making mistakes – possibly at the detriment of us winning games in the now – in order for them to grow. The easy thing is to say “we need Dusty/Fyfe/Kelly”. Would I like one of them? Of course. Do we need one of them? Most probably. But no matter how that situation plays out, we’re still going to have to also watch guys like McCartin, Goddard etc go through growing pains. We just witnessed the likes of Billings, Acres, Dunstan and a raft of dudes go through that over 2 or 3 years, so of course that’s hard to swallow. (We still see Billings etc make soul-destroying mistakes – so go figure.) That’s just how it works. The fact that we’ve started winning some games, and competing more regularly, doesn’t change that. McCartin has played 21 games, unfortunately he’s not Chris Judd, he’s not ready-made. Joe Daniher has just become a reliably decent forward (after 80 games) on the back of playing 4 years of consistently playing in the seniors.

(For what it’s worth I thought Paddy was one of our shining lights yesterday. Obviously he made some glaring mistakes. But we had 22 players that did, it’s just that Paddy’s unfortunately happened with the goals beckoning. The great thing was that Paddy was involved, active and up for it for four quarters – which isn’t something that could be said for many of his games to date. He also was effective both up the ground and within the 50m arc. His final quarter goal from 50m was just desserts for a promising performance. He was unlucky in hitting the post from a similar angle 2 minutes later. Like Richo mentioned post-match, anyone who has actually followed Paddy properly to date knows that his marking is the very least of our concerns. He’ll be fine in that regard).

The omission of Josh Bruce was derided by some dimwitted pundits like Terry Wallace, for putting the individual (presumably McCartin) above The Club. Anyone who has actually watched the side properly over the last two years though knows that’s rubbish. The Bruce omission was the recognition of ongoing problems with the team. Outside of the Hawthorn game, win or lose, we have struggled to maximize our good play. And that doesn’t specifically mean the tall forwards, but the smalls too.

Losing yesterday, in comprehensive fashion, should again reinforce to the Footy administration at The Club that there are more fundamental issues for us to overcome outside of whatever the win-loss column represents.

 

Zero?

Round 23, 2016
St Kilda 5.5, 11.7, 17.8, 25.11 (161)
Brisbane Lions 3.4, 6.8, 9.11, 15.13 (103)
Crowd: “19,000 approx” at Etihad Stadium, Sunday, August 28th at 1.10pm

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Nostalgia plays a varying but key role in our individual relationships with footy and the clubs we support. It follows that the warming weather of August is unmistakably tied to all that goes with final stages of a footy season.

Chances are you’ve seen enough complete seasons in which the milder temperatures and later sunsets either represented the impending breather you could take after the home-and-away season, or it beckoned you to run further into it and see your club achieve something that you may not be sure you’ll see again – or, for St Kilda fans, get painfully close to achieving something that they may not ever actually achieve in your time. The first drought was 93 years; this one is 50 and counting.

Regardless of how your season is placed at this point of year, there is always some sense of looking forward and some sense of reflection. How, and why, are we here? Where are we going? (And, if you’re lucky enough – is this it?)

Of course, seasons like the one we’ve enjoyed in 2016 aren’t looked back on in true favour until we know that it led to something positive. The 2003 season we look at now with positivity because it was the stepping stone out of the dark ages of the 1997 Grand Final fallout and Tim Watson era, and into the heady days of 2004-onwards in which the eve of every season felt like the eve of a potential premiership tilt. Some proved to be more so than others.

By the end of Sunday the season would become the the third out of 10 we’d finished ninth; all that was left to be revealed was if it was by percentage or by a game. Hindsight’s 20/20 but given we know now it was percentage, the results of the Hawthorn, (first) North Melbourne and Gold Coast games all become that much more poignant.

Nevertheless, it was important that we end the season on a positive note. Plenty of goodwill had been created a on Saturday at the Captain’s Run at Moorabbin, with a massive turnout that demonstrated the growing sense of anticipation at the club and amongst its players generated through this year

Matt, Evan and I were queued up at the Saints Shop sale so we could make our annual purchase of player issue jumpers; we just ended up getting a whole lot more than usual to add to our growing collections. Tim Membrey clash, Seb Ross home and Blacres NAB Cup for me; Paddy clash and Gresh home for Matt, D-Mac home for dad, Josh Bruce clash for Rich, and Mav clash for Evan and David Armitage clash for his brother James.

Dad is a huge fan of D-Mac’s and so for an early Fathers’ Day present we grabbed his player issue home jumper and shoved a bunch of kids on the fence out of the way to make sure we got pole position on the fence to get it signed for him. D-Mac was one of the first players over to the crowd on the fence but quickly realised no one was actually jostling for his signature (unlike Jade Gresham, Josh Bruce and Mav nearby who saluted for Matt, Rich and Evan respectively) and looked a bit flat and was about to walk further along the boundary for someone to recognise who he actually was. However, I chimed in with bloke-ised “Oi, D-Mac” his face lit up. I asked if he could make it out to to my Dad and he very kindly (and neatly) made it out to him with the “Go Saints!” tag as well, and his signature at the top of white panel. Matt and I couldn’t give it to Dad quickly enough afterwards and I’d like to think, ignoring D-Mac’s clear development over the past few weeks anyway, that my visible desperation to get his signature only further boosted his ego and carried him to one of this best matches in his early career on Sunday, and set him on the path for a long, fruitful career at the Saints.

Everyone would have been pretty flat if we dropped this one to arguably the most irrelevant team in the competition. The “Bad News Bears” was one thing but the current version, having a three-peat in its cabinet, is now just a large mess that represents an expansion club from a tacky city that for no particular reason over one the competition’s oldest and historical clubs in Fitzroy, and is slowly taking the Lion down with it.

A pretty free-flowing game – 24 goals to 15, with 14 goals kicked in the last quarter – would prove to be Leppitsch’s last game, but it was probably always going to be no matter the result. It also happened to be the same game that his cousin Brandon White debuted in, and against the side he grew up supporting.

Following the respective trouncings the previous day of fellow also-rans Melbourne and Richmond when the Lions booted two quick early goals you might have thought we were in for a real raffle, with all prior form truly out the door. But the pressure eventually lifted and matched the intent that the pictures from the rooms before the game indicated – each player embracing one another individually, and all players linked together in a circle for some final words from Richo.

Slowly the tide shifted but it wasn’t until My Favourite Hair in the AFL’s brilliant second quarter did we look absolutely sure things.

I’ve said on this thing a few times that a lot of the talk in these reviews isn’t so much focused on the better players. In the past Lenny, Dal and Joey never got a lot of airtime here, and right now our better players are probably getting a bit more of a mention than usual because it’s someone like Blacres or Ross that have shown quite pronounced development or improvement, and it’s a talking point amongst Saints fans. There’s not so much of a point to saying “oh and Nick Riewoldt played well” because no shit, of course he did. I must say, Riewoldt has been mentioned here often so I can just say “My Favourite Hair in the AFL” and because he does so much stuff in general, and this year may be a bit more than usual given his value to the team in his new role. But all those mentions, throughout this year and previous seasons certainly belie what he brings to this club.

I spend far more time talking about Gresh or Ross or Blacres or Membrey than the guy who has effectively led this team from 2005 (2006 under Luke Ball was quite forgettable) and probably has worked harder to develop his game year-on-year than anyone else. And so after a season in which he dropped a bunch of kilos for so he could preserve his knee and play a new role up and around the ground to allow Bruce, Membrey and Paddy to develop their own games, in the final game he pulled out a nine-goal, 26 possession, 21-mark effort. On what was a really relaxed day out at the footy only he could somehow manage to spark a sense of urgency around the ground – the one figure synonymous with the extremes of what should have been a premiership era – the last couple of minutes had the ground wanting goal number 10, but it was fitting that Armo in his 150th would take his shot late when he had it within range and kicked the goal (cheeky smile aside after he took the mark, which had us half-expecting him to pop it over the top to Roo). What will we do without him? We’re not quite ready for him to go – I mean that from a football sense; we’re a better team developmentally with him out there and we’re a better team overall with him out there.

There was a bit of party atmosphere by the end the match. It wasn’t quite the same as 2013, which was tinged with a bit of sadness in what was Milne, Kosi and Jason Blake’s farewell games. I bring that up because the focus was on three guys whose careers we had ridden from start to finish, and for all intents and purposes should have been part of the group that delivered the club its second premiership. However, on that day – against a Fremantle team of mostly second-rate part-timers we recorded the most ever disposals by a team and players lined up for shots at goal at will (Kosi four times after coming on as the sub), with Milne and Blake’s late goals genuinely nice moments (as was Kosi’s poster, which as he revealed recently was known to be a poster only by him and the umpire upstairs before it was overturned).

But on Sunday, Riewoldt’s nine goals was a (rather large) microcosm of the mix of reflection and forward-looking of the day. Assuming his body can hold up, then surely there’s two years left in him. It was somewhere between a reminder of what he’s done for this club – and perhaps what his standing would be had we won a premiership in his time – but also that he’s not done yet. And that was just a starting point to what else Sunday offered – what might be in store longer-term for this club as the younger guys continue their development.

So this was ultimately a party of optimism, knowing that we could bank today and Riewoldt’s nine goals and the performances of Seb Ross, Blake Acres, D-Mac, Jack Newnes and even Brandon White – and everything else that had happened in the last two-thirds of the season – and have the entire off-season rest up and think about all the things that could be in the coming years. We might need that rest, too, because if things develop as we hope they do than at this time next year, and hopefully for a number of years afterwards, we’re gonna be very anxious a lot of the time because we might be nearing something big, or something heartbreaking. The 2004-2011 period, for all sorts of reasons, were nothing if not exhausting.

That said, there’s an energy around the club at the moment. We’re ready to go again. You can see it on the field in the way the players all went to Brandon White after he kicked his goal, you can see it in D-Mac and Blacres naturally finding themselves exactly where they need to be, you can see it in the follow-up work of Membrey and Bruce and even Paddy when he’s out there. You can see it in Jade Gresham dancing through traffic. We don’t know how it all ends for this team, but right now we are at the point of richest optimism, youth and hope before – if plans come to fruition – the future we’ve been waiting for becomes the now.

It’s quite accurate in 2016 to say “Morrissey says a lot of things”. But once he said, “Six months is a long time” (yes, I’m about to relate a Smiths quote to footy). Every season, even if part of a broader journey, is its own story.

Of course, seasons like this aren’t looked back on favour until we know that it led to something positive. The 2003 season we look at now with some positivity because it was the stepping stone out of the dark ages of the 1997 Grand Final fallout and into the heady days of 2004-onwards, in which every season until after the Grand Final Replay represented a potential premiership tilt. Some proved to be more so than others.

Even the heartbreak of 2009 isn’t contextually complete without knowing and acknowledging what happened the following year, and then the difficulties of 2011 onwards – right up until this day, thinking about what happened over the past weekend and thinking about Carlisle returning, thinking about how the young guys will go next year and thinking about what will happen over the trade and draft periods.

We won’t know what all of this counts for a while. But right now – as strange as it feels to say it – feels good. It feels like we’re about to start something.

Seasons past

Round 21, 2016
St Kilda 5.0, 7.5, 9.8, 11.10 (76)
Sydney Swans 4.1, 8.4, 16.7, 23.8 (146)
Crowd: 33,059 at Etihad Stadium, Saturday, August 13th at 7.25pm

Between two wins from the first eight games and last night we swung between “mathematical chance” for a finals appearance and “part of the conversation” (as proxy for “better mathematical chance”). Ridiculously, we’re still a mathematical chance to make the eight, but more reasonably (and to the point) we’re no longer part of the conversation.

Saturday night marked the end of a few weeks in which we appeared to perhaps emerge from the depths of the last post-Grand Finals crash. This year will be noted for the big step taken by the club from the previous years, but certainly nothing more until we find out in the coming years what it actually led to.

Yet another late season drubbing against the Swans in hindsight was always on the cards. Our record against top eight sides hasn’t been awful – some of those encounters include our best footy for the year – but the Swans added to our 2016 pile of smashings at the hands of premiership fancies that have highlighted the gap still to be made between where we’re coming from, where we are and where we want to get to.

The AFL has enjoyed the comfort of recent years knowing that the Swans will be facing the lowly Saints late in the season in what surely looms as a key match for the Sydneysiders (#conspiracy). In Round 21 of 2013 the Swans doubled our score for a 59-point win; in Round 21 of 2014 Buddy went nuts and the Swans won by 71; last year we kicked only four goals in Sydney premiership hero Adam Schneider’s farewell match in Round 22 as the Swans shat in a 97-point thumping; and in Round 21 this year it was a 70-point margin.

Despite what was on the line for both team the atmosphere pre-match was one I haven’t quite experienced before. The Pride Match is a wonderful initiative by the club. Last night was the first time I ever saw two males holding hands at a game of footy. I saw one man get visibly emotional as he received his Pride scarf, which were sold out well before the game (I had to opt for the beanie after going to four different selling points inside and outside of the ground). There was a remarkably relaxed feeling walking through the crowd; people seemed to feel comfortable and there little of the bravado that often accompanies a boorish mass of people. People felt like they just be people.

The reception it received – judging by the media attention on the game, the atmosphere at the ground, and seeing how many people had purchased and were wearing the scarves and beanies – was incredibly heartening. As a straight, white male I’ve had the easiest of runs but to know this event was being planned and then actually attending was a relief. Some people will say it’s a PR stunt; others will click the “Angry” icon on Facebook posts from the club and the league; others will bemusingly leave flyers on windscreens around Trevor Barker Beach Oval on the day of Sandringham home games. Yes, free speech and all that, but the ideal of free speech is to have a serious conversation, and through that process weed out the excess and deadweight that gets in the way of growth and progress. It’s so great that the club I support engineered this event, but it’s so great that any club did.

Hey, remember that time we had pick #2 in the 2001 National Draft and we used it on Luke Ball and then Chris Judd got taken at #3 and the Eagles made back-to-back Grand Finals and won a premiership and Judd became one of the greatest players of all time? And then Luke Ball left after getting only 50 per cent game time in the 2009 Grand Final and won a premiership the following year for the club we played off against twice for the Cup? Anyway, three years ago we had the #3 pick and we used on this guy Jack Billings who I reckon will be pretty good, but the Bulldogs had pick #4 and they used it on Marcus Bontempelli who is exactly the kind of big-bodied, polished player who can kick goals that we’re chasing in a trade or via free agency to lead our midfield and is probably the best young guy in the comp at the moment? And albeit at this early stage Billings is giving us worrying signs that he might not be as good as thought he might be? He had five touches to three-quarter time last night. Yes, it’s not about this year; yes, he’s here for a career; but is anyone else slightly terrified about that situation? Here’s to a massive pre-season for Junior Burger.

Anyway, we’re looking thereabouts for the coveted #9 pick this year, having had it in 2006 and 2007, using it on Armo and Big Ben respectively. Armo’s a known quantity now – we know what his best is, and he was closer to it last night than he’s been all year. But he’s fallen well down in the pecking order of our prospective midfield through the anticipated climb up the ladder. Big Ben has turned into Shane Savage and Luke Dunstan (with pick #18 in 2013). I still think we finish ahead in that one (pick #19 in 2013 was Blake Acres which technically speaking we received from the Hawks in a separate deal for picks 24 and 59), although you’d have to ignore the fact that Patrick Dangerfield (yes) was taken with the pick immediately following Big Ben’s, and Cyril Rioli three picks later, and Harry Taylor at #17, and Alex Rance at #18, and Callan Ward at #19.

Blacres was really the only one that Richo highlighted in the post-match press conference. Again, he was just about everywhere. He started at centre bounces, and moved high up the ground and into defence, took on the opposition and moved smoothly through traffic, and played as a focal point up forward. It was his hard get-out from the middle that released Steven who ran and delivered to Mav for a goal in the first quarter, and twice in the second quarter after he was moved up forward pushed up a little to provide a link and delivered handsomely to Paddy on the lead.

He ended up with 1.3 amongst a couple of rushed shots and probably should have finished with two or three goals but in his turns up forward he covered for the glaring absence of Membrey and Bruce. Membrey looked likely early but after his early mark and goal neither really effected the game in any meaningful way. Paddy only finished with five disposals but he kicked two goals and presented very nicely when the guys further up the ground were holding up their end of the bargain.

The difference between the first and second halves was (obviously) profound. As someone who totally doesn’t play for the St Kilda Football Club I can’t actually tell you why, I can mostly just sit here at the keyboard and say I don’t think Billings was very good. Perhaps the enormity of getting through a season caught up with the group when faced with a genuine premiership prospect playing for a top-two spot; for whatever reason it might have been Richo pointed out that whilst the intent might have been there it simply wasn’t effective when a tackle was attempted or a turnover was on. The midfield was obliterated; Ross and Armo battled hard but Steven’s influence was quelled, Hickey couldn’t run after the first quarter and Gresham’s output was understandably down a little. Guys like Geary and Dunstan may well have been missed, but I don’t think their absence combined with a couple of umpiring howlers in the final quarter would have made much difference to this one. The Swans were controlled throughout and it felt as if we were playing above ourselves to stay in it until half-time; the short balls in to players in space in the forward 50 was our forté last week; this week it was the Swans who ran, spread and presented in numbers all across the ground.

Strangely, the best moment of the night might have been Eminem’s snap goal in the first quarter when he was low to ground and under pressure; at that point we were looking like we might really present a challenge to the Swans. However, he and Minchington are the most likely to come out on form next week as surely some novelty moves are made to make way for Shenton, Templeton, Holmes, Brandon White, et al. What might save Wright is what saved Minchington the week before – low possession numbers offset by a large tackle count; Wright had an equal game-high of eight (shared with Newnes and Tom Mitchell) whilst Minchington had 10 against the Blues. But the temptation to have a look at guys that have performed consistently well for the Zebras without reward surely becomes too great given the only thing on the line is exactly which top-10 pick we get that we might regret in hindsight. Shenton kicked another four goals for Sandy today, making it 10 in the last two weeks and 16 in his last five games for the Zebras. I don’t know how many possessions Eli needs to get and Holmes’ best chance comes this week with Hickey in doubt.

Who else but the Saints to play into form a premiership contender? Buddy roamed scarily across the ground in the second half and incredibly racked up the highest possession count of his career (28) to go with his six goals; at the other end Aliir Aliir continued to establish himself with his composure Fletcher-esque reach – his spoil on Paddy wide near the 50-metre arc was sublime. Their midfield showed off the best of their hardness and polish, and racked up huge numbers (and a few goals) en masse. To put it short, the Swans looked scary, and there’s every chance we’ll be looking back on Hawthorn vs. Sydney Grand Finals in the even-numbered years of 2012, 2014 and 2016.

The season effectively ended with potential future captain Jack Newnes’ flying shot at goal at the beginning of the third term. His shot cannoned into the post; had it gone through we would have been in front, but from then on Buddy alone collected 15 possessions and kicked three goals in the quarter as the Swans kicked 8.3 to 2.3 for the term; 15.5 to 4.5 for the half, and 17 of the last 20 goals for the match. The final siren marked a 141-point turnaround from the previous week, making it our 11th highest in history but only eight points from second on the list.

I don’t think any reasonable Saints fan would have set themselves for a season that ends immediately with the sounding of a siren – I talk of course about finding yourself in a final, or an effective elimination match near the end of the year. When you’ve been at our low level over the past few years the end of the season is literally just the end of the final home and away match, but you’re counting down to that from around the halfway point when it’s clear no dream run will emerge. We didn’t quite get that this year. Whilst the slow start to the season and costly losses to the Gold Coast and North Melbourne (at least one of the two to them) had us on or near the ropes for much of it, the emergence of several younger guys and some genuinely good wins on the back of some genuinely good football meant it would take a few serious shakes it took to bring the whole thing down.

In hindsight it was the 2003 season that was the link between the post-1997 Grand Final crash and rebuild and the heady 2004-2010 premiership-fancy era. I don’t think the improvement in 2017 will be as exponential as what the stunning 2004 season gave us, but with the addition of Carlisle, perhaps another big-name player in the off-season, and another season’s experience for the younger guys improvement has to be a non-negotiable. Amongst all the forgettable games, conjecture by amateur bloggers about our recruiting and the piercing draft and trade talk, time passes. Slowly but surely we’re approaching that point in the future we’ve been talking about for years; that point where what the club has been building towards materialises. Over the next couple of weeks we get to relax a bit, and then we get the chance to really take a break for a few months. These types of seasons can become quite laborious as a fan and it’s a welcome breather. The weather in Melbourne today was beautiful and in tandem with last night’s result compounded the feeling of another season going by; the unfamiliar weight of pressure, however small, of the last few weeks had been lifted. But as one Sydney premiership hero (and yes, ex-Saint too) once said, “Give me Grand Final nerves any day”.

RedWhiteandBlack.com.au 2016 Best Player Votes – Round 21
David Armitage – 3
Blake Acres – 2
Seb Ross – 2
Leigh Montagna – 1
Jack Newnes – 1
Nick Riewoldt – 1

Totals
Jack Steven – 32
Nick Riewoldt – 23
Seb Ross – 23
Tim Membrey – 18
Tom Hickey – 14
David Armitage – 11
Leigh Montagna – 11
Blake Acres – 10
Jack Newnes – 9
Mav Weller – 7
Jade Gresham – 6
Jack Billings – 5
Sam Fisher – 5
Jarryn Geary – 5
Josh Bruce – 4
Sam Gilbert – 4
Dylan Roberton – 4
Shane Savage – 4
Sean Dempster – 2
Paddy McCartin – 2
Luke Delaney – 1
Luke Dunstan – 1
Jack Sinclair – 1

But I know we’ll meet again, maybe a whole lot

Round 17, 2016
St Kilda 3.3, 8.6, 10.12, 15.20 (110)
Melbourne 6.2, 6.5, 9.7, 11.8 (74)
Crowd: 25,322 at Etihad Stadium, Sunday, July 17th at 3.20pm

This year I’ve found myself being a little (well, quite) fatalistic and cynical when it comes to how I think the rest of the season will pan out. I mentioned last week that I got it a little wrong, immediately anyway, with my dour summation of the Crows debacle, but it’s worth pointing out again that the win over the Cats being followed by Rubbish at Carrara – Election Day Special proved what we knew about the Saints as much as proved nothing at all; we already knew that we’re lower-to-middling, inconsistent developing team that will win some games it shouldn’t and lose some games it shouldn’t.

Whilst North’s collapse for now has opened up eighth spot a little, even after the win today we are still facing an uphill battle to overcome that gap and have to really be playing above ourselves for an extended period. Whilst some of our opponents, namely the Bulldogs, North and Sydney present the biggest roadblocks to a top-eight finish, we’ve proven to be our own worst enemy across periods of games, whole quarters, and whole matches.

The last time we lost to Melbourne I was in my final months of school and we suffered the ignominy of coming off blowing two Preliminary Finals and then losing as the sixth-placed home team in an Elimination Final, having narrowly missed out on a top-four finish. Luke Ball was our captain, Grant Thomas was our coach and Aaron Hamill was somehow still out there. The 10-year gap between losses to Melbourne doesn’t particularly represent anything – whilst the club experienced a wistful period of incredible, buoyant, ultimately sad moments in that time it’s really just a reflection of where these two sides specifically have been in a specific number of years.

It’s more relevant to look at recent and current form and make-up of the two lists, which Paul Roos almost blithely talked about during the week as perhaps being the foundation for the two sides playing off against each other in Grand Finals in the coming years. Should our development go as planned, as we had the Cats last time around looking to break a lengthy premiership drought we’ll probably have the Bulldogs and Demons this time to contend with (not to mention the GWS juggernaut, but no-one is a supporter of the AFL). A Melbourne vs. St Kilda Grand Final (for some reason when I picture the 2019 Grand Final it’s us in our clash jumper, hopefully what we have at the moment but probably not) will be a sad fucking day for the club and its supporters on the wrong end of the result. Maybe if our streak against the Dees was still going right up until a Grand Final date then St Kilda supporters would be puking at the prospect of playing off for a premiership with that as one of the key talking points of the week. You know we’re the kind of club to give it up when it counts the most.

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Matt on his way to catching ’em all™

The 3.20pm Sunday timeslot necessitates that the AFL orders the roof to be closed at the Corporate Dome, which essentially means your weekend ends by 3pm (or whatever time you choose to walk into the ground), and earlier if the game begins in the early afternoon and the roof is closed anyway. Unfortunately it was a beautiful sunny winter’s afternoon but I guess in the 21st Century there’s no way at all we can embrace that . I described it the other week as being on the set of a TV show rather than at the footy, and I’ll stick by that. If the AFL is so keen to keep Etihad even though it won’t really actually revamp it or realign it so the sun isn’t awkwardly placed – which seems to be the reason of choice for people who don’t like the roof open – then we’re stuck with the TV studio rather than the footy ground.

For this week though it the augmented reality aspect was ramped up – even the club couldn’t resist embracing the Pokémon Go craze and starting its own hashtag for the game, encouraging the fans to “help us capture some Pokémon – both inside and outside the ground”, which had me worried that if things went south for one tam we’d have half the crowd trying to catch all the Oddishes, Venonats, Psyducks and Magikarp that were in and around the ground. Apparently the Snorlax hanging out around Crown didn’t make its way up Spencer Street.

There were two Melbourne supporters on the 55 tram into the ground, and as per usual just myself as the sole Saints representative (although there has been a Saints-supporting couple on my tram once or twice this season). I know I mentioned that the slight opening for eighth position before; right now I think it’s in a scuffle with that feeling we’ve had over the past couple of weeks that the season is in wind-down mode. The next few weeks will tell us more but the weight of probability is with the latter winning out. The tram ride in was appropriately subdued; more about looking out to the whatever was passing by bathed in very nice sunshine.

To the Savoy again for pre-match burgers and drinks, and for Evan and Matt a chance to go through their Pokemon strategy for the final time. We took in a bit of Carlton and West Coast (before it got interesting), which was taking pace under the eye of US VP Joe Biden and thousands of secret service agents, which I’m sure made up most of the 26,000-plus that were at the MCG. It looked like West Coast were going to sneak into fourth on percentage, even with the GWS barrage to come in Brisbane later in the day, but the Blues at least made things vaguely interesting for the VP, but not for anyone else as it shut out any chance of any other spots in the eight being available any time soon.

Matt caught an Oddish as we crossed Spencer Street, I got a free Dare Iced Coffee® and we were soon enough parked inside our Aisle 32 seats with relatively minimum fuss – neither of these teams’ fans like going to the opposing Melbourne grounds for away matches so the 25,000 crowd didn’t present any difficulties, apart from the club’s bottom line.

It was only seconds into the match when Hotline announced his return marking right near goal and then missing from the line. The Dees set the tone for the quarter by cutting through the middle in numbers and with space up forward Garlett marked and goaled. Billings looked set to at least partially atone for it with quick hands to Eminem in the next forward foray, but Marshall ran in and missed another easy shot. Membrey couldn’t complete a one-on-one mark when it came back in, and the Dees were again. Petracca, the man set to terrorise for the next 12-15 years, marked over Ross for their second. He’d have two goals himself by the end of the quarter and set up Jack Watts for another, and he could have had a third by half-time but hit the post from relatively close range. The 2014 draft decisions start to tick over in your head in these moments, just as the 2013 draft choices will on Saturday night as we pit a casual Billings against Brownlow winner-to-be Bont. For the time being, it was looking like just the perfect day to have a whole lot of Melbourne supporters around us in the St Kilda members.

Mav Weller had started strongly this week, involving himself up the ground and kicking our first. I say this because his game against the Cats and Essendon were punctuated more by periods in each that were small but had huge say in the outcome of the game. This week he looked as if he’d set himself to effect the play more consistently. Like last week, it was him and Membrey that were having a say in the front half despite the Demons’ mids having their way with our own. Skunk’s first goal came at the fall of the ball from Acres’, uh, soft hands, and swooped on it and bulleted a goal from 45 metres out.

Billings began pushing up and looking more purposeful across the back half, but still the ball movement was a little stagnant, just as the pressure placed on the Dees’ players across the ground was stilted; getting caught drawn to the player with the ball and allowing for their teammate in supporter too much space on the outside.

A short period saw Gilbert dribble a ball out of traffic on half-back to turn it over, then collect the ball from a sloppy Bruce handball amidst the resulting re-entry and send a slick pass to Hickey on the wing. In one of Hickey’s rare blunders for the night he waited too long the option presented further ahead by Roo had dried up. Shortly after that the ball landed in Hogan’s hands as he ominously outbodied Dempster and finished the polished work from further up. From the centre bounce Petracca took it out of the middle and found Hogan. Melbourne with a six-goal quarter and looking to be doing far too easily through the middle, and Hogan was set for a day with an undersized backline to follow the seven he kicked against it last time we played.

The possession count was clearly in Melbourne’s favour by game’s end and so that stat ultimately only said so much, but at quarter time a lot of individual players’ numbers were pertinent. Jack Viney had 14 touches, with Harmes and Jetta 12 apiece. Our engine room was looking incredibly lean meanwhile: Steven had four, Ross had four, Armo just three, and it showed. Hickey led our own count with seven then six each to Membrey and Billings, as well as Dunstan who in his 50th has looking like the most productive mid.

It looked like the Dees were just a goal or two away from breaking open the game for the first part of the last quarter. Gresham had been unsighted but made sure everyone saw him by slipping over in the middle with the ball before redeeming himself soon after, dancing around two opponents on the arc and slotting a deft left-foot pass to Hotline on the lead. Billings was continuing to push up the ground and a goal next to his name would have been well-deserved but he missed the set shot.

Not until later in the term, when Jack Steven was involved at two centre clearances did we look like the team that, well, should have run out much more comfortable winners than we did. The pressure began to lift throughout the quarter and a string of near-free kicks in two separate passages got us within touching distance; the first through the middle when Armo’s tackle on Brayshaw went unrewarded, but Steven was at the fall of the ball to get it off to Minchington who released the ball to Sinclair, and the nicely-haired inclusion sent a long ball perfectly weighted for Membrey to come over the top and take a mark in front of goal. The second came from the maniacal pressure we were hoping would appear in the front half that saw three tackles across the pockets that all could have been paid for holding the ball; in the end it was the third that was given to Joey in the pocket and his snap did the hard work in the minute prior justice.

Whilst the game had been wrested back in our favour it was still looking for someone to stamp it and make it official going into half-time. Seb had stepped up and Steven had had some moments but they alone weren’t going to do enough to put us in a position of dominance. Like last week at a critical point, sort-of-potential future captain Jarryn Geary again stepped up and again proved keyboard warriors like myself wrong about his worth to the team. They were his first goals of the year and they came in the last couple of minutes of the quarter, backing himself to recognise where an opportunity was to push up very high up from his usual position and make something of it. Billings would have to settle for a deft goal assist to the 0.3 he’d finish with, with incredibly quick hands to Geary for the second which he kicked in much the same fashion as his first – off a few steps from just beyond 40 metres out. The goals don’t cancel out all the shanks with the ball which we in the stands are more privy to noticing, and the praise he gets from Richo and the players are for acts that we probably wouldn’t immediately recognise without being privy to the game plan. For all the stick that Geary cops from the stands the reaction from the crowd (the players aside) I think said a lot more about what we really do think of him.

The back-to-back goals were out of Mav’s playbook from the Cats and Bombers games. Melbourne’s head start at the first change and comeback late in the third necessitated a big play though. Mav reprised those critical efforts of recent weeks with something similar in the last quarter and was part of two important goals after Melbourne got within a kick, more than atoning for the relatively easy miss that was one of many that let the Demons back in during the third quarter (although he did kick a great set shot goal in the same quarter). Following Big Max’s goal early in the last he charged at White, who had cut off a pass just forward of centre, to set the ball free and then came back to the contest and dived forward to thump the ball out to Acres on the way to Wright kicking a long ball to Gresham in the pocket. Gresham read the fall best off of his own marking contest, and smartly handballed it over his shoulder to My Favourite Hair in the goalsquare in the AFL for a steadier. Mav shortly after combined with Acres, with the latter playing a focal point role in attack in the last quarter and grabbed the ball out of a contest after he spilled a tough mark and and working it under pressure to Mav who, like his first goal last week, was coming past at the perfect time close to goal and slammed through this third goal for the day. (Mav also pushed up to be part of the slick hands work with Newnes out wide to set up Riewoldt for another set shot miss.)

Membrey was the one who was the lead-up forward that took the mark from Joey’s kick out of the middle and sent it long to Acres for that Mav goal. The players really did make a beeline to Acres in the celebration (Mav looked slightly confused when players were rushing past him to Blake but soon joined in). Acres’ game at the moment is perhaps along the lines of a Gary Rohan, and it means he offers some real versatility across the ground if needed when we have our full complement of tall forwards and some shuffling during the game is required.

All of this came after quite the scare. Richo said the third quarter was the best of the year, and he was just about right – the only thing that made it arguable was the 2.6 return and the final few minutes, which combined let Melbourne right back into the contest. Mav, Membrey and Riewoldt were all guilty of missing shots that should have blown the lead out well beyond five goals by the final change, and we missed a chance for a huge reprieve when Roo did his part for redemption with a herculean effort to touch Hogan’s kick on the goal line late in the third quarter as Melbourne charged, and Membrey hit the post on the siren to reward it and the efforts earlier in the quarter.

It was Membrey who for the second week in a row had been the anchor in the forward half when the rest of the team offered very few clear shining lights. Whilst he hasn’t really turned things on in the few games we’ve played against top opposition since he came into the side in Round 6 for the first Melbourne game – his three against the then-undefeated Kangaroos his best against real quality – his last couple of weeks have certainly been a step in that direction. It’s one thing to capitalise on the rest of your teammates’ good work, but it’s another to really dredge something out of what they do when by and large the team is up against it. Again, his input came from different avenues – his first swooping on a ball off Acres’ hands, the strong contested mark over the top of his opponent, his leading up outside of the arc to be link the back-half to the front for the Acres and Weller combination. He finished with 10 marks, a good reflection of that aspect of his game.

More than merely a special mention must go to our own Stephen Merchant, Tom Hickey for his performance around the ground. Big Max was quelled for much of the day and Hickey played his part in traffic when the ball was moving on his way to a career-best 21 possessions; Richo said that his game almost added another player out there for us in general play. For what it’s worth he ended up with the full compliment of 10 AFL Coaches’ Association Award votes, and this year he’s completely established himself as not just our number one ruckman, but one of our key players.

Like the key goals from half-backs in Geary and Joey in the second quarter, of all people it was Roberton who took it on themselves to hit the scoreboard in a key moment. It came from a simple enough mark just outside 60 metres, but everything around him (and including him) seemed to be going in slow motion and in his lackadaisical way he pounced on the opportunity, ran off and kicked a long goal to effectively seal the game. As my Dad (and Leigh Matthews) pointed out, that the pressure was that good across the entire team allowed those guys to push up, knowing that an opportunity would most likely be created. That’s a lot of trust to have in your teammates.

A quick look over the stats sheet would tell you Steven, Ross and Armo particularly ended up with relatively muted numbers; a reflection of how even the team performance was across the entire match. Of course there was Membrey, Mav and Geary who had moments or output that would be imprinted in our minds a little more than others, or that would be better fodder for the highlights reel. Luke Dunstan was probably our most consistently-involved midfielder for the first half when things were really tough, and his goal in the final seconds was a fitting finish to his 50th game. But just about every player made some contribution in some way; right down to D-Mac who threw in a few Geary shanks of his own but did well to temper our future nemesis Petracca in the second half.

The 14 wins in a row against Melbourne counts for nought, really. As Roos pointed to during the week, these are two teams that all going well will share a very strong and potentially historic rivalry in the coming years – and if so then most likely in a ménage à trois involving the Bulldogs; effectively a double-headed version of our Geelong rivalry of this decade (and perhaps into the next). Hogan only finished with the lone goal, Petracca went quiet, and Brayshaw will need to feel his way back at the top level, but these are the kinds of guys we’re probably going to have to get used to on the journey.

RedWhiteandBlack.com.au 2016 Best Player Votes – Round 16
Tom Hickey – 2
Tim Membrey – 2
Mav Weller – 2
Luke Dunstan – 1
Jarryn Geary – 1
Leigh Montagna – 1
Jack Steven – 1

Totals
Jack Steven – 30
Nick Riewoldt – 20
Seb Ross – 17
Tim Membrey – 15
Tom Hickey – 10
Leigh Montagna – 9
David Armitage – 8
Jade Gresham – 6
Jack Newnes – 6
Blake Acres – 5
Sam Fisher – 5
Mav Weller – 5
Jack Billings – 4
Josh Bruce – 4
Jarryn Geary – 4
Sam Gilbert – 4
Shane Savage – 4
Paddy McCartin – 2
Luke Delaney – 1
Sean Dempster – 1
Luke Dunstan – 1
Jack Sinclair – 1