Docklands Posts

Good, bad, ugly, etc.

Round 8, 2017
St Kilda 4.3, 6.5, 9.8, 12.13 (85)
Carlton 4.0, 6.1, 9.3, 10.6 (66)
Crowd: 38,014 at Etihad Stadium, Saturday, May 13th at 2.10pm

 

Version 2

 

Saturday afternoon, the roof was open, two founding VFL teams with plenty of youth and on the improve. A huge crowd expected after last year’s sell-out, and fair to say both teams have shown further improvement since then. What more could you ask for?

By Monday’s wash-up we had the captain and coach apologising on behalf of the St Kilda Football Club to the Carlton captain for some pretty sordid sledging, whilst the latter had gone over to a player lying on the ground injured and had a crack at them.

It might have been the day we saw the genuine break-out game from Jack Billings, but certainly for now this one’s in a weird category – certainly for Saints fans – all on its own. There was the good, the bad, the ugly, etc.

For about 15 or 20 minutes we might have been sitting around thinking, “Well, we’re good now.” Weitering had blatantly shoved Jimmy Webster in the back en route to the opener but for a period after then we were looking at a Saturday afternoon stroll with all the extravagant thoughts that come with being 5-3 after years of dishing up garbage. In 1997 we were 4-4, in 2005 we were 4-4, and in 2010 we were 5-3. What does that mean? Nothing, because in 2009 and 2010 we were in front in time-on of both Grand Finals and came up with donuts.

So, uh, Saturday. Our midfield weren’t just working hard but they looked slick after their huge performance last week, albeit against not quite the same opposition. The around us heading into the weekend was about the maturity of the group and it could handle backing up a huge performance like that. After HUMAN OF THE DAY Jack Billings snapped our first we were witness to probably the cleanest break out of the middle for a goal we’ve seen in a very long time – Longer with a clean hit-out to Steele, who kept composure and importantly, his arms free in a tackle to give off to Newnes running past, and he bulleted the kick to Bruce on the lead who managed to actually hold on to the grab and kick the goal. It looked like we were gonna be fine.

Carlisle was looking ominous. Playing off Weitering after a contested mark he set up the first goal, and Billy Longer was already looking more than competitive at the stoppages.

By the time Brown’s punching kick down the middle was cleaned up with a smart knock-on by Sinclair to Dunstan, who kicked long to the advantage of Membrey (almost spoiled by Acres who was looking to get involved ASAP after last week) and rewarded the work with a goal

But that was as comfortable as it would look for the rest of the day, really. Even when Billings kicked his fifth and took us out to a four-goal lead in the third there was an expectation that Carlton would hit back again, as they had around the midway point of each quarter.

It wasn’t until after the Blues’ quick flurry of chances early in the last that we were able to put a clamp on their kicking game that Bolton seems to have brought over from Hawthorn. The Blues have a lot of young guys they’re well drilled, patient and disciplined, and they didn’t go away. Once the ebb and flow of the game was in their favour they were able to control the ball across the ground, working hard to provide options for each other coming out of the back half.

Even once we put the brakes on in the last quarter we still had to work hard to keep them at arm’s length. The inside 50s read 41-24 at three-quarter time, and the handball count 161-83. They were some clues as to why we were only five points up, and Carlton were up and about after a melee that is now infamous amongst melees. Cool. We’ll get to that.

***

I don’t know exactly how Leigh Montagna will go down in the annals of St Kilda history, but before Saturday he was the only Saint alongside Darrel Baldock in 1965 to have kicked five goals and collected 30 possessions or more in a game.

In his 50th match, Jack Billings joined them. It was the game we’d been waiting for him to play since he led the comeback against the Bulldogs early in 2015. He’d started this season as whipping boy but within two months he’d been threatening to do just this, whilst having a growing impact along the way. He was more than the difference between the two sides – five goals, 30 possessions and 12 marks in a 19-point win. Four goals out of six at half-time; five goals out of a team total of 12 on a day in which we spent much of it burning opportunities going forward. A strong team doesn’t only mean everyone always contributes evenly – it also means different players will take responsibility to pick up the slack when an off day hits.

It was a long way from the first three games earlier this season in which his borderline-seagull performances had him getting easy touches off half-back and having the Diet Caffeine-Free Billings impact we were worried was going to linger. It hit a low against the Lions – 14 touches and not much else, and I would have had him in line for being dropped ahead of Paddy that week. The switch to a more forward-focused role was still to be tried in earnest this year though, and I’m sure that if it was obvious to me then people actually professionally involved and invested in his development would have been all over it.

When we as Saints fans talk about what he’s capable of our reference point is that comeback game in 2015. On that particular Saturday afternoon he kicked 4.2, including some very, very classy finishes in key moments, to go with 22 touches and seven marks. Our next reference point would be his 30-possession, two goal, 10-mark game against Collingwood in Round 3 last year – it was the first time he looked really comfortable moving much higher up the ground, but he had the scoreboard impact as well. Like Saturday, the common links are that he provides a marking target across the ground as well as hitting the scoreboard.

The Collingwood match saw him start either closer to or in the forward line, and it immediately gave him more focus and more purpose: a goal-kicking or goal-assisting target anywhere from close to goal (see his goal from a pack mark in the square) up to around the 50-metre arc, otherwise a target when going forward which allowed him to offer his smarts across the ground to move into position as well as use his disposal, rather than just cruising past a stationary player and using only one half of that package. Until the weekend, however, his kicking in front of goal was borderline comical and showed there was, for this stretch anyway, one part of his game that his confidence was still a little shaken. His return was 4.12 from a mix of set shots and snaps this season. We’d taken him at pick 3 to have the composure not just across the ground but in dangerous positions to create goals and opportunities, or finish them off. Finally, it clicked.

It’s become common knowledge that he went to the coaches and players in the off-season to go about improving his game, and was in turn challenged by his teammates. Saturday provides landmark performance for him, but doesn’t represent a normal performance for him, or anyone really. Perhaps it might give him a confidence in front of goal that lifts his accuracy, which would certainly make some of his games this year all of a sudden much better. Otherwise we’re looking for him to ultimately improve in the same way players like Ross, Webster, Roberton, etc. have shown. The class and skill he brings to the side will come to the fore with that progression. It felt for a long time – I’ve come this far without mentioning The Bont – that the onus has been on him to deliver on his potential, particularly given we’d taken him before, uh, a best-and-fairest winner in a premiership year player. The often-agreed 50th game milestone as a gateway to the next phase of a player’s career might have proved to be on the money with this one. He might have blown that so far out of the H20 on Saturday that the onus might have been flipped onto us, to not get too carried away and to temper our expectations. We as Saints fans are traditionally prone to a Messiah complex.

***

Murphy and Carlisle have provided the tabloid story of the week via a smack in the nuts and some sledging, about, uh, other stuff tabloids like. There’s a bunch of things I take away from it and my head ended up forming more of a rant than what I usually put down on this blog. I’ve put it in point form more for myself than the reader, but it certainly should help. They’re all pretty hard and fast.

  • If the roles were reversed, each club’s supporters would be reacting in the same way as the opposition’s are right now.
  • I think the sledging was pretty shit. Sure, it’s part of the game and all of that. But is that the kind of thing that you really measure someone by, or challenge someone on? What about yourself?
  • People using the word “cuck” to describe Marc Murphy is fucking gross (see above).
  • Running over to a player on the ground who’s in pain and/or injured and giving them a spray is lame, whether you’re the captain or not.
  • Someone from the Blues obviously wanted to throw some good old-fashioned 20th Century Carlton Football Club weight around and get a better story for them out to the press immediately and the media were keen. The Age ran with Murphy won’t “pursue action” over the comments. Whatever you think of the sledging, I don’t know what “action” he would technically be able to “pursue”. With no-one in the media saying much on what the sledging was about until Monday evening then wording like that on the part of editors it opens St Kilda players to being guilty of far more reprehensible stuff. The article also said that “The Saints and Blues have both privately accepted some fault after the heated encounter”. The Herald Sun went with the old “media identity says a thing which is now news because we said so” line of “Premiership coach Paul Roos says St Kilda’s personal sledging of Carlton captain Marc Murphy is a blight on the entire club”. Easy one for the paper to go with without their dislike of the Saints coming technically from their own mouth, but then it would go on to say, “The Herald Sun understands neither club wants to take the issue further, given there was sledging from both sides. A Carlton spokesman said Murphy would not be putting in a complaint, intent on moving on from the incident.” (Might be worth pointing out they have had Landsberger writing some specifically positive stories in the past few months).
  • I don’t know if a specific player code needs to implemented, but perhaps I’m being too generous on players’ standards. It should be pretty evident what’s a dog shit thing to go after a player about and what’s not.
  • Geary and Richo apologising is a welcome change. I say that with many asterisks a lot of mixed feelings. As a club we’ve been hung in the media much more painfully for a lot less in the past – and perhaps not as much for a lot worse.

I deleted a tweet about Murphy and his captaincy that I shat out in anger at three-quarter time, after I yelled things including calling him a “fucking dog” and “weak prick” immediately afterwards (with the small child directly in front of our membership seats present). I didn’t know whether to leave the tweet up for posterity once I learned more about what has happened. It said, “You’re ***amazing*** Marc Murphy. Great captain, leadership, etc. etc.” and ended with “#clown”. I’m still happy about Geary’s response to Murphy going over to Carlisle, followed by Steele and then…pretty much everyone else. But with more context the tweet becomes tribalistic. None of the things that happened on the field cancelled each other out; they all add up on top of each other. It felt spiteful in the seats for much of the game, but perhaps I’m in hindsight only colouring the frustration that we felt about how the match itself was panning out.

After the game I only saw Geary and Joey shake hands with Murphy (Joey might have been having words though). They had a chat and Geary gave Murphy a pat once they were done. Comments from SEN presenters were again used as news fodder to feed the, uh, SEN news cycle. There might actually be something to be learned out of it – even Damien Barrett was sounding considered today – but yet again some parts of the media made themselves the news. Before Geary commented publicly the Herald Sun we running a story based on something Wayne Carey said. And so it goes.

***

I don’t know if it was just me but as we were all sitting there wound up at the final change – Saints and Blues supporters for different reasons in that particular moment – I think the “Saints in the Seats” or whatever the fuck segment on the big screen kind of sapped the atmosphere. I was already having a ball with the roof open, allowing us to enjoy the Concrete Dome as a footy ground rather than a TV set on a Saturday afternoon watching two clubs with a combined 297 years of history. It was a fierce contest and then we get match-day presenter Emma Davenport being told to talk to a three-year old at realistically the one point in the day the crowd was totally not up for that kind of thing. Obviously it was pre-planned but I would hope even by today’s standards we’re invested enough in the game by that point to not need that kind of thing.

Also for the Seinfeld files, I’m not liking the club’s decision to play the song once after the win and then go to the faux-crowd chant version immediately afterwards, and then Emma for a player interview before going back to the song. They’re really trying hard with this chant thing but I’m still under the impression that if they took it away it would never be sung by the fans as an organic expression. Before the game I think it’s actually pretty good – for those of you 1. still reading for some reason (Hello Campbell and Harry) and 2. who haven’t experienced it, the chant is played as the players come out onto the ground and goes straight into the traditional club song as the players break through the banner. The timing could be a little better, as they go to the song maybe a few seconds too late, but it’s a much, much better build-up than some name-a-hit early 2000s track. Post-game is a bit different at the moment. Playing the song once and then going to something that the fans really aren’t sure about (and then a player interview) really drags on the atmosphere. It’s fooled Andy Maher and I’m pretty sure if fooled Ben Dixon after the game too when he was talking to Junior Burger for the Fox Footy broadcast, but otherwise I think that’s it. It’s best kept for the pre-match.

(Bonus Garbage: Fortunately the club has ended its pretty bizarre experiment of taking out the drum roll at the beginning of the song. My dream is to be at the MCG on Grand Final Day for a St Kilda premiership, and for the final siren to be followed immediately and loudly by the drum roll intro of the club song. You can crush my dreams by throwing away leads late in consecutive Grand Finals, but don’t take away my dream with a weird admin decision.)

***

The context of this week’s win is only complete sitting after the previous week. This was the first time this group has claimed a genuine scalp and had it on them to prove their mettle as a serious team. They were headed in the second half last week by a juggernaut-to-be that had several times demonstrated superior class and talent. The response was players like Acres, Gresham, Sinclair and Ross to step up and outwork their more fancied, fashionable opposition. This week they were being pushed by a young team who were sticking to a plan and responding effectively to each other and their coach. This time, the response was to will themselves to a win without too many highs to cover over the come down from last week. Again, it was achieved by hard work and on a day where so much was created by ourselves, let alone a buoyant opponent.

The three-quarter time siren going when it did was probably a good thing. It was probably the best thing at quarter time and half time, too. Carlton’s youth has brought a lot of energy and so much out of players like Murphy, Gibbs and Kreuzer. Once they wrestled the momentum back during the quarters it was tough for the Saints to take back – they kicked the last three of the first quarter, two of the last three (albeit out of four in total) in the second, and the last three in a threatening five minutes just before the final change. We’re making a habit of games being decided by final quarters. We’d better get really good at this.

Billings aside, and perhaps Ross’s goal in the last, the highlights reel probably belonged more to the Blues. Alex Silvagni’s smother on Robertson, Williamson’s goal and the team reaction, the presence and skill in a number of moments from Cripps and Charlie Curnow. The reaction from Geary to go to Murphy was exactly what you want, too, but the darker undertones of the game are what will resonate most for the wider football public. We’ve long been a club that lacked enough of a hardarse factor; on Saturday we went too far in searching for it.

Indeed both clubs were looking to get it out of sight and out of mind as soon as possible amidst the public fall-out. From a footballing sense it wasn’t a memorable match, although it might prove to be as important a win as last week’s. But can you really completely separate the game from the psychological and the emotional?

We’ll let you know

Round 5, 2017
St Kilda 4.1, 8.5, 12.7, 13.10 (88)
Geelong Cats 6.1, 8.3, 11.8, 19.12 (126)
Crowd: 33,884 at Etihad Stadium, Sunday, April 23rd at 3.20pm

The St Kilda website ran the video feature “Love the moment: R14 2009 vs Geelong” as part of the week’s lead-in to the game.

I don’t know how people can watch this without an overwhelming sense of sadness, or why the club would put this up (intentions of the campaign aside). Yes, I understand it was a great moment but post-Grand Final Day 2009 the memory has been shat on. It’s just a reminder of how good this team was and how in typical St Kilda fashion it failed to deliver a premiership. Posting it felt a little symptomatic of a club enamoured with individual moments, individual players, and indeed, individual premierships won by individual points.

The kicking for goal against the Cats in that Grand Final cost this club the best chance to heavily reinvent itself. Given our issues in front of goal this year, posting highlights from that match as part of the build-up was probably tempting fate. But given this club’s history, you could mention almost anything and there’s a chance the club has done something wrong related to it in some way.

Since that day, Geelong has remained competitive and become an entirely different club on and off the field. They won three premierships in that era and have remained a flag threat since, barring 2015. We kicked one away one and couldn’t snatch another (not to mentioned a few failed Preliminary Finals) and we still had to literally bottom out and work our way back up. Until we do get back up, we can’t say we actually did get back up.

The spectre of that era and that Grand Final still looms large for St Kilda fans, but for Geelong fans it gave way to bigger and better rivalries; rivalries that were more relevant to clubs that win premierships and create genuine success. As we tumbled down the ladder their victories against the Saints grew in size, and that gap narrowed as we trekked further on our development path. They are truly a club that has a hold on us, symbolically and on the field. It feels as though we need to do a whole lot more than any other day to beat the Cats. Again on Sunday it proved too much.

Selection this week was headlined by the inclusion of Billy Longer for Tom Hickey, who was officially “managed”, even though Richo went on to say he would have been dropped anyway. Billy appeared to have trained his way to front of the growing ruck queue by the start of the pre-season but Trickey played his way back against the Swans in the JLT. A pantsing by Max was followed with a huge effort against the Eagles and some big tackles against the Lions, but Martin and Grundy gave more head-to-head. I think of Billy as a Lazar Vidovic reincarnate – bash and crash-type who’s there to be an enforcer rather than Hickey’s relative agility for his size – but as Rich said after the game, Billy’s gonna need to be both officially managed and officially dropped after this.

On paper he got 29 hit-outs but Jesus Christ you wouldn’t have known he was out there otherwise. One kick, seven handballs and five tackles of which zero had the force of several of Hickey’s. He just looks…slow? It was his first game for 600-plus days so you can cut him some slack, sure, but would you keep him in the team for next week? Richo’s response is the post-match presser to what he thought of Longer’s game featured a lot of pauses and half-arsed phrases about physicality and contest, i.e. “he was a large human wearing a St Kilda jumper turned up on time”.

Surely Rowan Marshall has pushed himself ahead into second place in the ruck queue behind Trickey? He and Holmes were taking photos with fans outside the ground before the bounce and Lewis Pierce was being interviewed by Tom Morris in the whatever bar it is on Level 2 at half-time. Trickey had the ignominy of finding himself on the big screen at the main break flogging some bottled water. That was probably the flattest known collective of four ruckmen by day’s end.

Before Sunday, it looked like Marshall was a sneaky chance to bound in front of all comers anyway with a few more sausages for Sandy. He’d kicked 12 goals across the practice games and followed up two goals in Round 1 with another pair on Saturday. He might even be a threat to Paddy at the minute, although Paddy kicked 3.1 and collected 10 marks and 19 possessions. Marshall kicked 2.2 and 18 touches and took eight marks.

What’s published on the club website has often been a good guide to future selection moves and Paddy’s leading this week’s VFL wrap. It also has Lindsay Gilbee saying, “We really liked the way Paddy and Marshall played together. Rowan kicked a couple of goals and worked hard for his eight marks, and we may be getting a glimpse of our future in attack there from a St Kilda point of view.” Can we call it in?

Are we at the point where dropping Josh Bruce isn’t totally outrageous yet? A missed shot from outside 50 on his own, a missed set-shot from close-range for 1.2 to go with all of 11 possessions, three marks, and three tackles. Yes, he’s in the team for reasons you can’t boil down to easy numbers like those but is he only in the team at the moment because of his height? Or is the fact that he’s unable to get a rest in lieu of second ruck duties taking away from his ability to work around the forward half of the ground?

To be fair, whilst it wasn’t as bad as other weeks but he still isn’t getting the best quality supply from further up. Of all people it was Joey who was running forward with the ball on his own at a key stage in the last quarter and simply decided to send down a loopy Joey special on top of Bruce and two other Cats; if he’d held onto the ball for a second or two longer and given Bruce a chance to work himself into a better position. What hope has Bruce got there otherwise? And would bringing in Paddy or Rowan Marshall for him make a difference if the slightly-better delivery remained the same next week? Something was obviously up when Carlisle went forward though.

He and Brown looked really competitive down back again but had their work cut out for them when the Cats’ mids ran rampant in the last. There’s only so much you can do about precise entries forward and Dangerfield kicking goals over your head from outside 50 on his wrong foot.

Strangely enough, early in the last quarter we were the more accurate of the two teams, with the scoreline reading 12.7 to 11.9. That gap between 60 metres out from goal and 10 metres just looked to have been bridged a little. Billings found the ball in third quarter as well really looked to make a move, and waited patiently and lowered his eyes rather than blazing away to the goalsquare or to an outnumbered forward and delivered beautifully to Bruce, who had been given a second to find a space to lead into. Both Acres and Newnes threw in some curve balls for the Cats’ defenders and scored goals from passaged in which they played as lead-up forwards. Seb Ross missed from a similar spot to Josh Bruce in the last quarter, just outside 50 on the run, but throw in his fantastic early goal from a similar situation at the other end and now there are players finding space around the 50-metre arc. Jack Steven and Dunstan opened the third quarter with great long-range goals after Stuv has almost created something similar in the second. He didn’t even give himself the chance to miss the shot when communications went haywire and he got mowed down.

With My Favourite Hair in the AFL having his first really tempered influence for the year and neither Bruce nor Membrey having huge contributions, it was going to be the smaller forwards and others who had to take responsibility for hitting the scoreboard. Minchington nailed a very specific triple-triple, with his third three-goal effort against the Cats from three games against them. He was the only player on the ground to kick three and he showed a whole lote more composure around goal than most this season. The third goal particularly was a good example of what a player who kick four goals and gets 28 possessions at VFL level can do; taking the ball tight in the pocket and knowing exactly where to run from a standing start to give himself the most time and space for a kick around the corner.

Gresham had a bad day. His dropped mark on the 50-metre arc in the last quarter turned into a Geelong goal, he slipped over with the footy on the wing in front of the members, his ridiculous attempt at a huge mark didn’t affect anything in the vicinity cost Ben Long his first goal in footy. His solo attempt at goal from deep in the pocket would have been spectacular if he nailed, but when it bounced wide he was rightly given a spray by Membrey who was calling for the footy by himself 15 metres in front. It seemed like he was trying a little too hard to keep up with the pace of the game, or perhaps he was trying to fill the gap left by Lonie’s omission.

The difference here is you can forgive that. Gresh earned himself a bad day – it’s part of any inexperienced player’s development, but from the start he’s shown enough composure (that word matters) and class (likewise) often to suggest not just that he will be a very good player for us, but the type of player we’re particularly lacking in. We can let this one slide.

Ben Long will probably get dropped for Sinclair but as any of the coaches or recruiters would say, he’s here for a career, not just this season. He’ll be better for the run at this level and has shown he can match it each time he goes up in grade. Sinclair surely has earned a recall – Sandy’s stats will tell you he had 35 touches and a goal and he’s been tracking at so far above VFL level for too long now to not a game. Richo said in the Coach’s Message video, “Sinclair’s had another strong game and I think that he’ll certainly push hard for selection this week.” I think you can lock him in for Tassie.

Gilbert’s best contribution was cruelly annulled by one of the many awful umpiring calls. I’ll make a quick deviation to make a point – yes, whilst Selwood got a free for being pushed by his own player maybe next time Josh Bruce should actually make the most of the small good fortune of receiving a bizarre free kick close to goal and kick straight. Gilbert bulleted a pass to the hampered My Favourite Hair in the AFL on a lead in what was probably our last decent chance to get ourselves back in the game, but the advantage call was pathetically not given…I don’t know what the fuck happened; given there was no stop in play the umpire I am entirely unsure why the umpire brought the ball back. If it’s a late hit then it’s downfield. But of you’re a good enough side then the player with the ball now has the chance to size up a bunch of options, and the forwards have a chance to provide something at the time when they need to the most. Gilbert’s kick went straight to a Geelong defender.

Geelong simply had far too much class, composure and run, and again hammered an opponent into the ground in a final quarter. Selwood’s intercept mark and give-off to Guthrie for a running goal in the final 12 seconds was a fitting finish. There was simply no answer for him – collectively we lacked the speed and grunt that their midfield brought when it counted, and they were far more polished with the ball and worked to space more efficiently around the ground. If we were to win it would have taken us working at more than capacity, and that would have brought no guarantees.

I didn’t mind Gresham being thrown into the middle in the last quarter. He was probably down a little on himself for the aforementioned reasons and he got chance to reset his focus as well as see up close what a true matchwinner looks like when the heat’s on. Almost bemusingly, perhaps, Glibert was in there too. I understand the need to have put a fresher, bigger body in at that point because we looked cooked right across the ground and Ross and Steven were being saved at certain points. I don’t question Gilbert’s intent for a second but the free he gave away for holding the man from a centre bounce was very clumsy; as if he just couldn’t react quick enough for the pace of the game. Again, he managed to put down a couple of marks as he did last week, or simply not impact an aerial contest in the way you would want him to. I’d suspect he’s close to a game for the Zebras, both on form and the logistics of playing youth, whether it’s to bring in a tall forward or someone like D-Mac (26 touches), Brandon White (26 – 22 kicks, five inside 50s and seven rebound 50s) who returned handsome numbers for Sandy on Saturday, and some positive reviews (Bailey Rice included) from the people good enough to take time and do some write-ups on BigFooty forums everywhere. The profile of Shane Savage I feel like has fallen off the face of the planet in less than a week, but 27 touches and six rebounds from defensive 50 shows he’s obviously got enough talent to be dropped to the VFL and immediately know what’s what.

Dunstan followed up his 11-possession game last week with…12 possessions and two tackles. If he hadn’t of kicked that goal then I don’t know what. He may get another chance though because Koby Stevens got a heavy knock after being very busy for the Zebs – he’d had 11 touches and seven tackles in about half a game.

Right now though I feel like he’s just not having the influence he should. Richo mentioned in the Coach’s Message that fourth and fifth-year players need to be having a “stronger impact on the game when it is things are slipping”. That seemed particularly aimed at Dunstan, Acres and Billings. I feel like right now there’s a bit of an analogue between Lonie versus Minchington, and Dunstan versus what we assume Koby Stevens would bring to the team – that is, the defensive and pressure acts side of things, but the latter bringing in some more actual football. Mav Weller

Armo might well be done. As much as he clearly gives when he’s out there this is the unfortunate circumstance of a player’s body letting them down. A few of his troubles have come from knocks and collisions (e.g. the knee slice against Paddy Dangerfield of the Adelaide Crows early in 2014), but his form was clearly affected for most of last year. Steele, Dunstan and perhaps Stevens have a chance to really contribute to this team.

Stuv looked like a really good player who’d missed a couple of weeks and was being thrown back in against one of the most potent midfield combinations in the game. He racked up good numbers and the addition of his pace was noticeable enough that Freeman looms as an ace up our sleeve if he works out. Perhaps surprisingly Richo said he wouldn’t expect to see him in the senior side before the second half of the year, but I don’t think any of us were expecting to see him ever? Luke Penny and Aaron Hamill never quite got back as their injuries piled on; Markworth was always coming back from a freak knock directly to his ACL; Jesse Smith was already injured when recruited alongside Andrew Lovett to add class to defensive aggression for the 2010 campaign. We’re used to this thing not quite working out.

Seb Ross played probably the best footy of his career as his odds to be the 2018-2022 Premiership Captain shortened. For one of the first times he also displayed a little bit of pace, and on a day in which he collected 33 touches there were some far more damaging disposals in there, and in much more dangerous parts of the ground. Some pinpoint field kicks to go with shots at goal that a) easily covered the distance from outside 50 and b) he wouldn’t have backed himself to kick two years ago. Not to mention the Sam Mitchell-esque pause and perfectly weighted kick to Dunstan for Luke’s goal. I don’t think many saw this development coming from Seb before last year, and it’s players like him that really need to take these steps is we’re going to be successful in the coming years. Right now he’s done that and more, and is looking good to be this club’s next captain.

Steele again was a handy complement as someone who can play inside and out and be smart with the ball both ways, but needs to get more of the ball. The asterisk to that is that it was only his 22nd game and is looking like a great pick-up. Good hair, too. Speaking of arbitrary asterisks, Pick #3 in the 2013 National Draft was Jack Billings. I feel like he’s still just got a faint asterisk next to his name, because before this season he’d only played 42 games and hadn’t really had a decent run at a pre-season, let alone a decent run at a proper season, with some pretty difficult injuries really hampering his ability to get some momentum through seasons. That’s not just playing several weeks of footy in a row, it’s about playing a few months of footy without missing a game. He got close to that in his first season but even then finished early, and missed large chunks of the last two seasons. His two back-to-back goal assists reminded us of why he was picked so high, and as far as my silly internet opinion goes why he should be played in the front half more often. I’ve mentioned both – the perfect pass to Bruce after some actual consideration, and the nicely weighted handball to Minchington in the pocket, who did it justice with the finish. He doesn’t need to get 30 touches a game and for all of them to be like that, but he needs to do those things more often before we can even speak of him as vaguely worth pick #3 ahead of the Bont. I think I might have been a bit harsher on Dunstan, who is only 11 games ahead of him in the same period, but that’s by the by – both need to start lifting their output.

McKenzie, Rice and White all were named in Sandy’s best, but where do they all fit in? Maybe it’s Gilbert that comes out. The past week was Dylan Roberton week, named for the player who is somehow now actually convincing us he’s a genuinely good footballer, has a genuinely good football brain and belongs in the leadership group, and he put in another strong performance. Webster continued his improvement, despite his expert bullet pass to a Nakia Cockatoo at the top of their goal square in the first quarter. He’s tough and his disposal is (usually) pretty good. We need more of that.

Geary (C) was the last one standing, let alone running for us in this one. A desperate spoil and follow-up in an attempt to get some semblance of run off half-back in the last minutes, together with bandaged head, had him above all others at the point. To paraphrase Van Jones, who was possibly doped-up at the time of his original comment, “He became captain of the St Kilda Football Club in that moment”.

Despite the loss it was the type of game you’d leave having felt as though you’d watched a tough, entertaining contest that saw the best players and the best team perform well and rewarded. It was probably some of the best footy the Saints had played in terms of going head-to-head with a genuinely good team for the production of an uncompromising game of footy. We also got a lesson on where we’re at right now. Geelong has a habit of doing that.

*Heaps of symbolism*

Round 1, 2017
St Kilda 6.2, 7.8, 9.9, 13.12 (90)
Melbourne 2.3, 9.4, 15.7, 18.12 (120)
Crowd: 36,249 at Etihad Stadium, Saturday, March 25th at 4.35pm

In short: it’s one game and there are other rounds and seasons. In long: Here is way too much ranting, featuring probably way too much symbolism.

Ok, so.

How did you feel late on the Saturday night of Round 1, 2004?

If you’re a St Kilda supporter and old enough to have been aware of what was going on, then the answer was probably “pretty fucking great”.

The Saints had trounced the Cats in the far more valuable sequel to the Wizard Cup Final a fortnight earlier, and had stamped themselves as the most fashionable new team with the brightest future in the league. After a few lean development years – with the 1997 Grand Final ensuring the hallmarks of the Saints were retained going into the new millennium – the St Kilda Football Club looked set to be transformed by one of the most exciting and damaging collection of players in the league. The future looked good, and it looked endless.

We look back now and note (and feel, of course) that the Cats added three premierships to their cabinet since and have only dipped out of the top eight twice. Meanwhile, we continue to build the mythology around 1966, and theoretically the club is only now barely coming out of the rebuild following the heartbreaks of the GT and Ross Lyon eras.

It’s worth noting that the idea of the Geelong-St Kilda rivalry seems to have been mostly shed by Geelong and its fans. They moved onto bigger and better things. The notion still exists for us, but mostly as a representation of what never was. The 2004 meetings in particular between the teams promised both a long-term rivalry between two burgeoning juggernauts, and the likely ending of two long premiership droughts. The 2009 Grand Final appeared written to deliver both the epic showdown that had been promised for so many years – it certainly did, and was a fitting end to the decade – and given what had transpired during the season, that second element also: a premiership for St Kilda to go with Geelong’s own drought-breaker two years before.

When the Saints turned the 2010 finals series on its head over Geelong in the 2nd Qualifying Final, it put the Cats on a collision course with the Magpies in a Preliminary Final. Their comprehensive loss and the departure of Mark Thompson looked certain to bring what was already an incredible era for their club to a close. Somehow, they backed the whole thing up and won a third premiership in five years, as we endured a painful, cold come down from coming so close over a long time – don’t discount the added wear and tear of 2004, 2005 and 2008 (not to mention the 2006 ride and its fallout). It was apparent that everyone from the fans through to the players had been heavily scarred.

Geelong’s story was ultimately written with a key but much reduced role from St Kilda compared to what was in the initial drafts of the script. Sydney ended their 72-year drought as the rivalry built; for the young St Kilda team that has been put together over the past several years the Bulldogs have delivered in similar time after 62 years (both the longest droughts in the game at the time). Melbourne has emerged as the Geelong rival equivalent to the team put together featuring Riewoldt, Hayes, Ball, Dal Santo, Koschitzke, et al. Again, two founding teams with similar premiership droughts, except the pairing of 1963 and 1966 is now 1964 and 1966.

In the time since that opening round of 2004, those Melbourne and St Kilda waits have become the longest in the game. Sydney, the Cats and the Bulldogs all had longer droughts at that point; all have saluted since. It’s worth mentioning alone for anyone who cares about historical coincidences and miscellany, but this is all an important reminder for the fall-out of Saturday evening.

I’m sitting here running through this shoddy exercise because we now know that we will see My Favourite Hair in the AFL take the field again. It wasn’t until after we’d left our new seats on Level 2 well after the siren that I checked Twitter for any updates that I found the first pieces of positive news starting to filter out of the club. Until that point we’d sweated in the humidity, been wowed briefly before being systematically overwhelmed, and then finally crushed when Riewoldt went down. Otherwise this would be mostly be a hastily cobbled requiem for not just the career of arguably the best Saint, but an era in itself.

Instead, it’s firmly about the future. The Geelong comparison matters when trying to process what the hell happened after quarter time on Saturday. I’m not saying there will be a period of time in the near future in which we’ll win three premierships in five years and watch Melbourne flounder. Likewise, I’m not saying Melbourne will miss out in the way we did over the last 13 seasons.

Of course, there was a huge build-up to this one, an opening match between the two most fashionable new kids with the brightest futures with what appeared to be clear demarcation points in their narratives – Melbourne with a new coach and about to step into the finals; St Kilda improving with a coach that had grown with them and about to step in the finals.

The fact that we hadn’t lost to Melbourne since the 2006 2nd Elimination Final – a very dirty night for us for a lot of reasons – is only an anomaly and one that will be quickly forgotten. It didn’t mean we won a premiership in that time, nor was it the reason Melbourne and its fans suffered so much in that decade. Their win right now symbolically says plenty and at this point in time might enhance a pending rivalry, but it isn’t what it will be ultimately remembered for (should that rivalry indeed emerge). What does Round 1, 2004 mean for Geelong fans? They wouldn’t particularly remember it, nor care for it if they did.

If we’re good enough then the players will learn from it and be better for it, and it will be a small step in much, much bigger journey. I joke that I have Melbourne and us pencilled in for the 2019 Grand Final, but for now that’s all it amounts to. There are no facts in the future.

***

What caused the turnaround after the first break? I was sweating profusely from the comfort of our level two seats; I have no idea how the players were feeling. But Melbourne ran out the three quarters incredibly well, all the more considering Joel Smith (as far as I know, no relation to Joel Smith) had his game ended in the first quarter, leaving the Dees a player short for the bulk of the match. To put it succinctly, it seemed there was simply little movement from our players after quarter time both with and without the ball; Richo’s post-match description of the players as “reactionary” is probably a more accurate way of putting it. But why did it happen? Surely you don’t train all pre-season and give the JLT a good shake to just run out of gas 40 minutes into Round 1? We were underdone for Round 1 last year and still managed to play 85 minutes of good footy interstate.

The midfield was smashed – Max had it all over Man’s Best Friend host Tom Hickey at the throw-ups courtesy of Adele, and Melbourne’s mids racked up ridiculous numbers as they worked in numbers together around just about every contest. Even when Hickey won a hit-out the Melbourne mids were first at the fall. In fact it took the otherwise-unseen Seb Ross in the final quarter to actually win a decent hit-out against Max from a stoppage, and from there the Dees still ran away with it and kicked a goal. Their pressure was good when we had the ball, their run and spread was good when they had it, at stoppages and in open play.

Hickey was a shadow of the player that found the ball 29 times in the final practice match, and a shadow of the ruckman that had been one of the few to handle Max decently in the past couple of years. Hickey wasn’t the only one in that category, and Max just might have taken another massive step in his career, but you can only write that kind of thing off so many times.

Melbourne’s approach in expanding their midfield numbers with their high draft picks is looking like it will pay off handsomely. Never mind Viney and Stretch being handy father-son picks; the input of Oliver, Lewis, Vince, Brayshaw, Petracca, Neal-Bullen, Jetta and Salem reflected shrewd drafting and recruiting. Steven needs someone else to breakaway from traffic, Steele had a good debut, Armitage might have peaked, Ross was nowhere, Dunstan likewise. It would have been nice to see Billings and Gresham at more stoppages, but Billings’ game in particular suffered once we were shut down in close.

Petracca got to enjoy a couple of goals (including one immediately after Riewoldt was taken off) and found the ball 23 touches, and his celebration in the third quarter of his goal was the first roar in this conflict proper. The comparisons between him and Paddy will be endless – do 21-possession, three-goal games from Hogan influence the debate at all? For all the rumours Petracca’s character issues had him fall behind Paddy, we might be waiting a longer to be feeling OK about our Billings/Bont and and Paddy/Petracca draft choices in successive years. The 2001 selection in hindsight is enough to make any Saint go the big vom, and not enough people are aware we chose McEvoy at number nine with Dangerfield going 10 in 2007.

Paddy was a late out this time; rumoured to be a hamstring. Richo described it as hamstring “awareness”, and introduced the “fit to play”/”fit to perform” debate into more public footy lexicon. Last year Paddy was a late withdrawal for our first game against the Dees as well all felt spooked by the debut of Petracca, and the inclusion Membrey kicked five. Acres won a Rising Star nomination with 28 touches and two goals, but Membrey’s disappeared since the first few minutes of the JLT series and Blacres apparently can’t hit targets and so suited up in the black, yellow and blue alongside Paddy yesterday. Lonie was the in for Paddy; obviously they wanted some pressure but Jesus Christ I don’t know if Lonie realistically passes the disposal accuracy test. He’s still somewhere between Milne and the worst of Schneider – tries to do a lot, has a wayward left foot when the goals beckon. He needs to spend more time with Gresham, who with three goals was one of our best. His solo effort from the Gresham pocket (with a cameo from Membrey) was all class and composure, something that was severely lacking for the balance of the match.

As for the draft concern in Billings, his race with the Bont is over. Marcus has already won a best and fairest in a premiership season. The external pressure and comparisons are over. Billings is now left to do what he was drafted to do and in the Corporate Name Community Series appeared to have stepped up, and he kicked a brilliant long-range goal to open our game and season’s account. As I said before, his game appeared to be reliant on the rest of the team’s, and he was drafted specifically because he is creative, not to compliment our inside mids in the event that they’re winning their battle against the opposition’s. Until Melbourne turned things around, he was very busy across the ground, but that’s not enough. Hindsight is the proverbial USC eyesight reference value, but we could have had Bontempelli and Petracca. If I’m going to listen to myself though, Billings hasn’t turned 22 and Paddy hasn’t turned 21.

Richo will be facing his own tests in the coming weeks, probably for the first time in his career. A trip to Perth will quickly shift the players’ focus over to rectifying whatever the hell it was that went on after they got on a plane last year. No Riewoldt for a week or two (after all that – lol), Paddy should come in after three goals in the first half as the Zebras coasted through a practice match against Port Melbourne; Rowan Marshall kicked five and My Future Favourite Player Josh Battle four but for varying reasons don’t expect to see them any time soon. Sinclair found the ball 27 times in three quarters and looks an obvious replacement for one of Wright or Lonie, although Lonie led our tackle count with six. Wright is more hardened than the other smaller forward-half players but did fark all and I feel as though the others (Lonie included) have a higher ceiling than he does.

Carlisle and Brown look cute wearing 2 and 22 respectively and watching them work together to cover off players when Melbourne’s mids charged forward again showed they’re already building an understanding. There’s obviously work to be done individually and from the perspective of settling into the team, and Dempster might well be required given the task at hand against the Eagles, but just give them a second. I’d also hope we’re in a position to not have to select players based on the likelihood of our mids getting towelled again. Both Brown and Wright had knocks to the head so there might be an easy reasoning to take them out for next week.

We got a small taste of games actually meaning something in the back half of last year, but this time we’re starting fresh and (almost) anything can happen. To strip away the symbolism this result may well bode as very important come the end of season, with both us and the Dees expected to be jostling for a top eight spot. The build-up to the game certainly was a welcome reminder of what it means to partake in a relevant game of Australian Rules football. Riewoldt’s four goals in the absence of Paddy and effective games from Bruce and Membrey was a stark reminder of how important he still is for us. We really felt we had to confront a post-Nick Riewoldt world for a time on Saturday, and I don’t think we were quite ready. Certainly not at the moment. Geary opened his captaincy by dropping a clean mark on his own. He got a bit of the ball but I’m not sure exactly what he did; although I’m not sure what anyone did really apart from a few.

Assuming we are actually stepping up from last year, I didn’t know if I was ready for us to be good again. But I won’t hold my breath. The 2010 Replay was seven years ago now, which is the same distance that 2004 is from 1997. But I really don’t think anyone was or should have been expecting a 2004 leap, despite us finishing on top of the JLT series ladder and going in against our up and coming rivals in Round 1 (to throw in a final 2004 comparison). It was an incredibly deflating experience being at the game, but now that Riewoldt is OK how do we feel? A lot happens in footy, and we can always read too much into it.

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.

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