MCG Posts

Past tense

Round 23, 2017
Richmond 4.1, 11.5, 12.7, 19.8 (122)
St Kilda 1.2, 4.3, 9.9, 12.9 (81)
Crowd: 69,104 at the MCG, Sunday, August 27th at 3.20pm

 

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I’ve been putting off writing this. It can’t possibly be a game review as it usually would be. Inevitably it would be all about Nick. Writing about his last match would also make the fact that he is now retired more real.

Thinking about his final game is to think about his career and be moving in and out of moments of hope and heartbreak, and very little in between. I began shedding a few tears when the scoreboard flashed up his career statistics in the minutes after the final siren; the first time I would see any final reference to his playing career. 336 Games, 718 Goals. That’s how it will remain.

For all intents and purposes, Nick Riewoldt was the one who would lead the St Kilda Football Club to its second premiership. I don’t know how many times I’ve written that on this thing, let alone just thought it. The thought of him holding the premiership cup made sense. Who else would it be?

To believe in Nick Riewoldt playing in our next premiership challenge was to believe that we might be able to find redemption for anything that happened throughout all the extremes since the 2000 and 2014 wooden spoons, and what we seem to refer to now as “the Grand Finals”. Nick was someone that had been there with you for that journey. It made sense that he was the number one pick at the end of the year 2000, at a(nother) ground zero for the club that he would lead with his good mate picked at number two to the promised land. He won the 2002 best and fairest, a season that returned just five wins and a draw. He was a key part of the 2004 and 2005 teams. He was the one who led the team out on the Grand Final Days of 2009 and 2010. It’s worth noting that he was at the front of the “St Kilda schoolgirl” bullshit in the months following the Replay, that marked the beginning of the end. His faux-knee in Round 1 apparently heralded the handover to the players who we hope are part of our next premiership challenge. To watch the end of his career is let all of that go, to let it all become part of history.

In lieu of vast quantities of team success over 144 seasons, it is individuals that we have had to celebrate more so about this club. Nick was a beating heart in a human body that represented the club. Right now we can only hope that this club is better for having had him. Hell, even our premiership has solitary elements to it. We remain with the failed St Kilda identity in tact. One Darrel Baldock. One Ian Stewart. One Tony Lockett. One Robert Harvey. Still, somehow, One premiership, by one point. One Nick Riewoldt.

***

I shed more than a few tears as he was carried off by The Most Inaccurate Man in the AFL and, wonderfully, his cousin. I’d taken both my Maddie’s Match and membership scarves to the game and wrapped the former around my face. I stood outside the MCG after the game for a bit but they weren’t really going to stop, so I walked to the city with it over my face the entire time and caught the 58 tram home, sitting in the corner facing backwards and out the window.

Until I’d come home and watched Richo’s post-match press conference and the highlights I could stay in that moment in which we were all experiencing Nick Riewoldt’s last match. He wasn’t quite retired, not just yet. For just those few moments. But watching back his final post-match interview on the ground, his final moments in a St Kilda jumper on a footy field – one based on the jumper he wore in his first game, no less – Richo talking about the day in the past-tense, and then an interview in the rooms with Nick himself made it very real. I ended up pulling my dressing gown over my head, lest an individual look up to my bedroom window overlooking Brunswick West and see my oddly lamplit face crying at my desk over the computer. On behalf of whoever might stumble across that: no thanks.

What to say about the game itself? By quarter-time the season was officially over as the Dockers’ late push against the Bombers fell short. Our effort ended up being a disappointing replica of the Melbourne match just a fortnight earlier; in fact, all three results on the Sunday were the opposite of what was required for us to make the finals.

If we shat ourselves under the pressure of the occasion and the gaze of 53,000 people against the Demons, then the 69,000-plus fans might have amounted to the most people Billings, Gresham, et al might had ever seen in one place and the effect was the same. Never in it as Richmond looked like the top four team they’ve become, getting first use and breaking down any move we made coming the other way, and getting an even contribution across the ground.

Flipping the Port Adelaide result would have only meant missing out on finals by percentage for the second consecutive season, and we were rightly left lamenting inherent aspects of our game plan rather than just thinking “what if” about a few moments and ignoring the constant inaccurate kicking and useless delivery going forward.

The final few minutes were almost – almost – enjoyable. The stress of this season, the stress of having a countdown clock on Roo’s career, they were coming to a close, and it should be pointed out the Richmond fans and players were excellent in their reception of him after the game. His first mark on the wing in the final minutes was met with a huge cheer, as we sought to soak up what he brought the field for perhaps the final time. The umpire decided to step in and pay a free kick to his cousin Jack, which was a little bit funny to begin with, and was made funnier when the smiles on the ground brought everyone in on the joke. Shortly afterwards he took another contested mark in the same spot, and still managed to break the emotion of the moment by kicking a torp. I don’t think he particularly tried kicking it any further than he usually would have; he carefully put it onto his boot to make sure he kicked it correctly, and it took me a couple of days to realise it wasn’t a barrel at all – it was an NFL-style punt; a nod to a sport he loves and the country that is now an integral part of his life.

It would prove to be his last contribution. He would be on the goal-line for the final the siren; the final play of his final game. As Josh Bruce moved to wrap his arms around him, Jade Gresham – who had turned 20 three days earlier – kicked his fifth goal.

***

It would be remiss of me to not mention Joey after today’s announcement. He never got rid of the loopy kicks and he was probably the most unfashionable of a core midfield brigade with Lenny, Dal and, for a period, Harvey, Thompson and Powell. He was capable of long running goals too but also handy for some clever moves. His great goal late in the third quarter of the 2009 Grand Final has been pushed to the darker corners of our memories. It would prove to be our last goal of the 2009 season.

He was overlooked over the past few years as a leader around the club. It’s hard to compete with Riewoldt’s blonde hair alone on the field, and it’s more of a shame that his exit would be pushed so far into the background. Leigh Montagna’s 2010 season is second in St Kilda history for most disposals with 745, 10 ahead of Robert Harvey’s 1998 season and 11 behind his 1997. Joey’s 2009 is seventh on that list. Of the 1,589 people to have played for St Kilda, he has played the seventh most games.

***

“Be proud that you’re a St Kilda person.”

In the frenzied off-season following 2010, Nick made an impassioned speech at the club’s annual general meeting. He closed with these words, which were so simply against the tide of the time. In front of the board, the entire playing list, and members, he took a swipe at the media and at anyone looking to “denigrate us”. As fans of course we were all feeling it, and the 2011 season would prove the players were too. The introduction of the black collar and cuffs on the jumper felt like a mark of disgrace emanating from the failed premiership bid over so many seasons, and after so much promise.

It was left to him to guide the club out of the black hole it was swallowed by. Even in the 2010 Draw, it was Roo who wouldn’t let us go down, who took what remains an overlooked mark across half-back to shift the play to our front half for the final score and final moments. In a club that has only existed in extremes, seven days later he would be on the wrong side of the moment that represented the gulf between the teams. Dodgy knee and frustration aside, he took on the figurehead role through another wooden spoon, and the early, unrewarding stages of a rebuild. Of course, he suffered extreme personal duress in that period, also.

For the first time this club will be without a clear leader, or clear heart and soul. Barker’s career overlapped with Frawley and Lockett, which were given over to Harvey, Burke and Loewe. Harvey remained, and Lenny and Riewoldt were there to take on what had been built from 2009.

That lineage is done now appears done now. It really began with the 1991 and 1992 finals appearances, took in 1997 and the failed 1998, the rebuild to 2004 and 2005 and then 2009 and 2010. History will tell us if it represented the closest to a golden era the Saints can get after the period overseen by Allan Jeans. That era succumbed to a long winter, and after this season we’re painfully unsure that this rebuild will take us close.

***

That Nick Riewoldt would ever retire seemed something bordering on unfathomable for so long. I remember early in 2004 thinking how bright and how endless the club’s future looked. Nick embodied the notion that GT instilled in him – that the way footy is played can be a reflection of the person. Nick was the embodiment of St Kilda in a number of ways, and therefore he represented something so dear to us for so long.

Nick’s retirement is sad perhaps because it felt that it came at the right moment. That definitively it would ever be a reality. It is a reminder that time doesn’t wait for anything or anyone. Not even Saint Nick.

Hour after hour

Round 21, 2017
Melbourne 6.3, 9.6, 10.9, 14.12 (96)
St Kilda 1.1, 4.4, 8.11, 10.12 (72)
Crowd: 53,115 at the MCG, Sunday, August 13th at 1.10pm

Early this year Richo said development for this team in 2017 might not necessarily be reflected in a better win-loss ratio than 2016. Some key elements the group needed to improve on included consistency, the gap between best and our worst, and performances on the road in particular.

It seems like we’re forever playing whack-a-mole at Saints for problems (i.e. excuses), whether it’s over an extended period or on a certain day. Too many injuries throughout 2004, 2005 and 2006, adjusting to a new coach in 2007 and 2008, can’t kick straight on Grand Final Day in 2009. And so on.

But when we look at the record books (i.e. AFL Tables, FootyWire, etc.), they will show that for much of this season our own worst enemy was ourselves. For as long as football is played, sure, goalkicking will remain something of an issue. Somewhere between the insane pressure of being out on the ground and in the game, and having to get your body up for another effort after a raised period of intensity and adrenalin in the moment preceding it, players will struggle to get everything right. How much is too much? Grand Final Day 2009 was too much, and this year was too much.

How fitting it was that our goalkicking proved to be a major undoing on the day that our season effectively ended, after months of frustration and post-match press conferences of Richo saying the players “are working on it”.

That’s not to take anything away from Melbourne, by the way. For most of the day they worked harder to provide numbers for each other in tight and across the ground, to provide movement, were simply cleaner with their ball use and for the most part took their chance. They were good enough to keep their heads when faced with giving away a 40-point lead in time-on of the second quarter, and keep attacking after the newly-haired Membrey put us within a goal early in the last quarter.

Even on our winning days this year, kicking straight would cost us percentage that right now is the exclamation point on our inferior win-loss record. Never mind kicking ourselves out of the West Coast game. Want a maiden win over the wooden spooners to be? Have 14.23. Dominant win over the Pies? Enjoy 9.15. We all laughed when Josh Bruce ran into goal and hit the post – we’d coasted to 19.16 and a 75-point win over a broken Hawthorn. Not only had we wrenched back our season, but were looking sure things for a top-couple pick in the draft.

A few months and 12.13, 12.17, 14.19, 12.17 again, 7.15, and 8.13 and Robbie Gray later, here we are. Josh Bruce missing very close shots at goal twice, shanking a big set shot and losing the ball from his bounce as he ran into goal in the last minutes was the Champs-Élysées stage of our relevance to the 2017 season.

We will bemoan giving away a hefty lead early yet again, but inaccuracy and its podium-placed teammate Kicking Into Attack again proved far too telling far again.

There was also the lack of DARE® Iced Coffee that has underpinned so many of our poor starts, but that might not have looked so bad but for some awful entries going forward. We’d already hit the Down the Line button within the opening minutes but a few times we caught them on the break, only for Weller, Sav, Ross and Dunstan to not be able to kick it to the advantage of Gresham – Dunstan’s kick across the square was particularly awful – Sinclair and Membrey (or in Weller’s case, just the goals themselves). We’re not even talking hitting up leads here, simply goalside would have been enough, but the trend was to have the ball fall short each time. There’s the good kind of consistency and the bad kind of consistency.

A turnover from a bemusing-at-best Bruce handball (after a questionable mark from a questionable Seb Ross kick) the finished with a goal to Pedersen summed things up for the quarter, but it was just a taste of things to come from Bruce. This was before the third quarter onslaught of Gresham, Billings, Membrey et al. missing shots.

Seb Ross had had 14 touches at quarter time but it felt like several too many. Maybe he was feeling for Jobe, and he was working hard but an inexperienced James Harmes reflected the intent and composure that Melbourne brought by kicking three goals himself and honouring the hard work higher up. There is a tipping point at which having a whole bunch of looks forward doesn’t matter if you’re not going to kick straight or use the ball properly.

Since the Port Adelaide game particularly, but built on a solid base of uncompleted marks throughout the year, I think Bruce has come to represent working incredibly hard for little reward. The Port game was a great example – wet conditions, tough for a tall forward, interstate and a hostile crowd, and formidable opposition for a St Kilda-style dramatic finish (i.e. heartbreaking loss). but he gave contest after contest even though the delivery wasn’t great (also ran into the post taking a mark and Membrey kicked the goal from the spill). However, he finished with 0.3 in a game that we were 2.12 when the three-quarter time siren went, and still 8.13 by the end.

The Hawthorn miss will be played for years to come, and the mood was positive enough for Richo to crack a gag in the post-match following the Richmond game about him inventing ways to miss goals. His 2.5 was comical for the close-to goal shots that he missed, but from that point it’s just become tiring, so much so that the whole thing bent back on itself and became funny in a because-we-hate-everything-and-ourselves way when he fluffed the bounce running into goal in that late play. Because last week he missed the set shot from in front when the game was there to be won, and today he missed another in the third quarter, alongside a kick out of mid-air within a metre or two of the goal-line that went across the face rather than directly into the goalmouth and was instead fired into a Melbourne defender’s hand. They were sandwiched between a poke from a couple of metres out in the pocket in the second quarter that went across the face, and the bounce later on. The moment had well and truly come and gone by then.

Bruce finished with five marks but at what point do we hold Richo accountable for his public reasoning for dropping Bruce earlier this season? It was because he wasn’t completing his marks and not kicking goals. At what point does a player become a liability, no matter how hard they obviously work, no matter how they’re able to will themselves to the next contest even though they’re risking perhaps another missed mark or a missed shot, no matter how much it obviously affects him in the moment afterwards. I hope so, so much that he comes good and that this is part of the malady that has afflicted the wider team in season 2017. He’s not the only one guilty of missing shots at goal, but he’s certainly the best at it. If the players willed themselves at contests as much as he did we’d be much higher on the ladder right now.

One of the few highlights of the first quarter was the backline. Carlisle ran out in the long sleeves for the third week in a row, but the genuinely excellent conditions sadly saw him swap those for the short-sleeve version at half time. Either way, he was again a huge presence in defence, and as the game turned our way and we pressed higher he still remained incredibly difficult to get past, wherever he was. That we weren’t at least eight goals down at half-time said as much about how poorly we were beaten across the ground and how poor our use was generally, as much as it did about Carlisle and Roberton holding the defence together under a barrage, with White and Brown in support.

Hotline’s willingness to drop back and get involved in tight and plug space in the defensive 50 felt more like the result of his. Usually if we or him is playing well (whichever comes first) his mark count is higher because leading from the forward half to the ball, and he’s been thrown back because the coaches hasn’t quite figured out what to do with him or we needed someone who can kick an Australian Rules football competently using it off half-back because we’re on the back foot and aren’t playing with enough DARE® Iced Coffee. Rarely did we even look like wanting to try and take the ball through the middle.

It wasn’t until he was lining up for goal in the second quarter that from the broadcast side I realised his face looked, uh, different. In our frustration and disappointment – general descriptions again, but I think valid – we probably didn’t appreciate his game enough. Yes, that was made more difficult given he kicked 1.3, including hitting the post in that third quarter from a set shot, a running chance in the last quarter (a reminder of Schneider at the other end in the 2009 Grand Final) and then one completely out on the full later as the game hit Officially Dicked status, but FFS he had 30 pretty decent possessions all across the ground with one eye and a face twice the size of his regular face. Like Bruce, we can only hope this a team affliction that he’s been hit with (today Gresham was on board with them also), because he’s kicked 20.32 this year. The pick 3 that we all felt so good about using on him when the final siren went last week feels shakier right now, but at least this time he’s got a decent excuse. Here’s to another decent pre-season for him, and that hopefully someone tells his hair it’s not 2006 anymore.

What the hell else is there to say? Mav didn’t turn up in a game that was begging for someone that thinks that they’re a huge presence to make an impact. Gresham didn’t come to meet the moment when we was often has hunted it. Ross tried but just couldn’t. Gilbert battled hard. Sinclair’s reaction to his mopping up of Bruce’s mess was actually funny in a borderline pathetic moment. Of course, it was St Kilda that a team like Melbourne would meet in that situation – their biggest game for more than a decade – and win in front of their home fans. In which Cam Pedersen and James Harmes and Mitch Hannan would all have such pronounced impacts, and which Angus Brayshaw would come back and play a genuinely effective game, and be involved in head clash that took our player out for the day.

I simply could not begrudge Melbourne or their supporters anything from yesterday, or whatever positives they might get out of this season. The best of this game – and perhaps the best of humanity (broad, overreaching statement I know) – is built on empathy. For every time we acknowledge how hard or tiring or frustrating or draining or heartbreaking it is being a St Kilda person, that should give us the understanding to be able to truly revel in great moments for the game itself if we can understand and acknowledge the lean times those that also follow this game might have endured. Until last year, the Bulldogs were our closest analogue, and their achievements should have been something we could nod towards and celebrate. Melbourne has now taken that mantle. Until 1964 they were a powerhouse, but given that year saw their last premiership, not to mention how and against who; their record since then and the depths their fans have somehow made it through since 2007 have brought them more into line with our own overall. Their last win of the pre-2007 era came against us in the 2nd Elimination Final of 2006, with a scoreline of 13.12 to 10.12. Their first loss of 2007-present era was against us in that season’s opening match, and in the weekend’s quasi-Elimination Final they beat us with a score of 14.12 to 10.12. That last bit says fuck all, really. But I’m a sucker for that kind of garbage and it was on my mind at the time.

And where does having empathy leave us as a football club? Right where we fucking were. Be disappointed, be angry, be exhausted by another lost season. Next year, the club is officially on notice, from the players, to the coaches, to the board. The “Road to 2018” plan has us making the top four next year. Anything short of that has to be answered to by everyone at the club. That doesn’t make it better if St Kilda doesn’t finish in the top four, of course – it’s essentially gone unchecked for 144 years anyway. Maybe I’m feeling like I’m at a point in my life that I need to just pull the reigns on what I hope to get from this club.

I remember a chorus of Saints fans singing the club song on the bridge following the win against Richmond. We were sitting inside the four at half-time, and were only a few cheap conceded goals away by game’s end from at least being able to enjoy a spot in there that night, ahead of the Sunday games. Having already strung together several wins that had us in the same position earlier, it felt like we’d reached a new normal. That we were really challenging now. As I walked from the ground towards the city yesterday afternoon the chiming of the Federation Bells sounded “It’s A Grand Old Flag”. It wasn’t as loud as that crowd on the bridge, but it was much more poignant and definitive. We have more waiting to do.

Penultimate Candy Stripe Jumper #2 Match Review

Round 20, 2016
Carlton 1.2, 3.5, 6.7, 7.9 (51)
St Kilda 4.3, 10.5, 14.6, 19.8 (122)  
Crowd: 37,797 at the MCG, Sunday, August 7th at 1.10pm

Welcome to the final period of the home and away season, in which the sun begins to shine with a little more purpose, the conversation and daydreaming during the week starts to drift away from your own team a little and your best chances for anything happening at a meaningful time from well into September is “mathematical”.

Whilst the Kangaroos lost the previous night the Bulldogs, the realistic damage had been done the previous weekend, and perhaps more pointedly, the first time we met them in letting them get out to a comfortable lead, leaving too much to do in the final charge.

There’s nothing quite like a sunny afternoon at the MCG with two Victorian sides playing (and it’s perfect example of why there shouldn’t be a roof at any footy ground). Whereas our first date there this year was a brilliant early season win with a lot of exciting input from Billings, Dunstan, Steven, et al. this time was more about the season itself moving to its natural end around us; the sun shines a little more brightly but ultimately it’s for others. We begin to be reflective of our own side’s season, perhaps with a glimmer of an eye to the future, but as we also begin to look forward to finals time. It’s not our time just yet, rather we sit back and take in the history made by others.

On Sunday the pressure was mostly off. Everything was nice and relaxed, perhaps more social outing than attendance-at-a-footy-match-that-means-something vibe, but when it happens at this stage of the season you’re watching the ghosts of the hopes we had for the year, and it’s more of a celebratory tour for what has been a largely positive season that, to date, bodes well for the future.

Incredibly, it was my first time at the footy with my uncle, dad’s brother Simon, who represents the Carlton sliver of our family tree. Like so many Italian migrants a century ago, the Briglias settled in Carlton and the Blues became my ancestors’ club of choice. It was my grandpa, living near the Junction Oval as a small boy, who began the St Kilda chapter of the family’s history, with Simon only one of his six children to follow the Blues. Despite my grandfather’s brother being the Carlton club chaplain for a long period and his uncle Bill being the Carlton club doctor, and the consistent access to the Carlton clubrooms that my aunts and uncles had, it was just Simon that stayed with them.

He’s the kind of opposition supporter that you can easily watch your teams play against each other with. I’ve always found it a good character guide – objectivity, humour, and reasonableness will rise above boorish, boring, overgrown-boy tendencies. Simon is laid-back, has a great sense of humour and overall has the better qualities of people in spades so having him there made the day very enjoyable.

But more important than family, than heritage, than humanity: it was our penultimate match in the Candy Stripe #2. The King is (almost) dead, long live the King – no doubt a hot-cross bun style jumper that will either look like two different jumpers on the front and the back or have just a bit too much going on will be introduced next year in its place. I’ll reserve my whinge for this for a different, even less-read post than this, but watching it in the sunshine at the MCG…shit, it’s a great fuckin’ jumper.

The day before had seen Paddy kick five as he settled back into match fitness at VFL level and Shenton kick six. Yes, that’s correct. Shenton kicked six. Goals. Even when he was playing ok footy in the seniors for a wooden spoon team two years ago Matt Finnis’s comment on SEN about “unearthing a Shenton” still seemed overs. He’s kicked multiple goals a few times this year as he’s spent more time in the forward half – including one of the best VFL goals you’ll see out at Casey the week – and has also kicked Alex Kidd-style small bags of behinds to go with it all. Finally, it all clicked and he’s kicked six. Expect Paddy to come straight back in next week, to be reunited with Bruce, Membrey and My Favourite Hair in the AFL in a line-up we didn’t think would work together earlier this year but quickly found out was much more beneficial than we thought. In the distance, in the way you see the planes lining up to come into a land, another set of lights has appeared and it’s either cheeky trade bait or a reprisal of the problem we thought we had earlier this year.

Well, he was named as an emergency this week and surely deserves a call up alongside Paddy. There’s been a few question marks over Josh Bruce, and I know Richo said it’s great how he competes until the end but I don’t know how much merit there is in scoring cheap goals in junk time of games that were lost long ago; perhaps like Armo in recent weeks the coach is simply going into bat after their players. However, after today you might have to be shuffling the dynamic of the team a little – Dunstan will have to go out with a shoulder and Eminem slightly hurt his back (Minchington had little of the ball but laid 10 tackles) – and how do you keep out a guy who’s been consistently impressive in the VFL and then kicks six goals? The only template for that so far is Eli, but Shenton offers a little more versatility. Bruce certainly won’t be going out – it was about time he beat up on weaker opposition and he did that, with the trademark late goals included, but it’s the spark in whatever form it took that he’s (we’ve) been waiting for.

This game was probably the most relaxed of the season from a St Kilda point of view, and that’s taking into the account the unabashed talk of a finals appearance being nearly muted over the past eight days or so. Really, it was just a nice day out with my dad, my brother, my uncle and Rich, although easier to say that for us St Kilda supporters.

Things started as you’d expect a dead rubber between vaguely competent but ultimately developing teams would – free-flowing but with more than enough errors to abuse to the privilege of having a kind amount of time and space to do whatever the hell it is you want to do with the footy.

About halfway through the quarter though the St Kilda pressure machine was switched on after a week AWOL. In a solid team performance seventeen smothers was probably my favourite stat to come out of it. They’re the kind of thing that can be camouflaged by traffic around rushed kicks but so many of these were clearly the result of aggressive harassment by guys taking responsibility on themselves to quell the opposition, even in one-on-one situations and without the weight of numbers that makes that thing far easier.

Indeed, there were a number of individuals who returned stand-out numbers that bode well for our future – Newnes had 32 touches and nine marks; Membrey five goals; Josh Bruce four and nine marks; Billings two goals, 19 touches and nine marks despite disappearing for a lot of the game; Acres likewise for 23 touches and a goal; Ross found the footy 27 times, and to a lesser extent Roberton 28 to go with a goal, his Mattingley-style haircut having had a Samson-esque effect. But between all of them and Minchington and Eminem – both who got some acclaim from Richo in the post-match – there was no deadwood.

But the best individual stats probably belonged wholly to Jade Gresham – 25 possessions, 6 clearances in the second quarter, 13 contested possessions. Matt was going off early about how this would be Junior Burger’s break-out game, but for all the highlights Gresh has given us so far this year this was his most complete offering.

It also adds something to a the prospects of a midfield that at the start of the year were looking significantly leaner. Seb Ross and was still just some guy, and Gresham hadn’t played a game; Ross is now one of our top few best and most consistent players, and rather than a creative forward-half player Gresham is quickly showing signs of his worth as a midfielder. It’s not a like-for-like but with Dunstan out for the last three matches that would open things up a little for Gresh to spend more time in the middle and closer in at stoppages. His deft movement and balance, on top of his slick decision making and execution (we’ve all seen and talked about that) has given him the X-factor that we’re still waiting to completely emerge from Billings, and perhaps we’ve got that now in the midfield as well as near goal.

You could perhaps add Acres to that, who moved very well through traffic a number of times and has the larger midfield body size we crave after going Junior Burger instead of Bont. He’s not a genuine mid; I see parts of Brendon Goddard and parts of Gary Rohan in his game – decent size, can play anywhere across the ground and can move forward and play as a tall or lead-up option.

That’s all probably a little hard on Billings; he spent a middle stretch of the year injured and his numbers yesterday weren’t bad at all – if you’re going raw data he was probably only a few possessions short of the what we drafted him to deliver week in, week out. He’s started games well since returning, pushing high up the ground to offer avenues forward – something we need from him given his disposal – so perhaps it’s partially an experience and partially a tank issue. Both of those can be rectified.

Jack Steven was tagged out of the game but some further analysis showed it wasn’t all bad, but we were up against a pretty flat team. Gresham is showing a more genuine and damaging midfield pedigree than anyone else on our list this early in their career, but he probably won’t be doing that every week just yet and the guys I just mentioned simply aren’t  midfielders that can turn the game and step up their involvement in the way Stuv can at will. Armo’s almost certainly past his brief peak, Ross just isn’t that kind of player and it’s a 16-gamer who looks most likely to get things moving when someone needs to step up in the engine room.

The classic, arrogant Blues supporter behind us couldn’t stand Matt’s very facetious banter (most of it shared with Simon to begin with) and began having regular cracks at Jack Steven, telling him to get his own ball. Ok, look. Sure, you’re getting hammered by historically the worst team in this game’s history, but out of all the players that have represented the club that has won just one premiership in 143 years, you choose that guy to pick on? Him? Jack Steven? He’s the one?

Yes, it’s definitely a huge tick to the coaching staff that this playing style is a weight-of-numbers, all-in style that doesn’t rely on individual brilliance as the GT era mostly did. But we still to find need that bona fide, A-grade-at-worst, specialist midfielder to help out Jack, Gresh, Seb, et al over the coming years. The jockeying for Hurley’s signature might turn into jockeying for Caleb Marchbank’s if that midfielder presents themselves sometime this year, but we might be happy to hold off and go for the former Saints supporter if that key mid isn’t available just yet.

It’s easy to see a lot of positives – particularly in the forward line – when you win by 71 points but the Blues were clearly cooked after three really good weeks against strong opposition. So let’s run with it anyway because this week against the Swans will probably be a lot different. I’ve gone over Josh Bruce a little already but it’s worth highlighting his nine marks to go with the four sausages. You can look silly if you keep committing yourself to contest after contest in all parts of the ground and don’t hold your marks, and he’s been borderline Maister over the last few weeks but finally things stuck on Sunday and he got some reward on the scoreboard too. There’s no use in that happening at VFL level at this stage – he, his teammates and the coaches just had to make sure it happened in a red, white and black jumper and hopefully he can finish the year with a little uptick in form.

Talking about Tim Membrey is easy enough now because I’m essentially copy-and-pasting the same paragraph – he’s not the tallest player, he’s not the most powerful, and he’s not the quickest, but fuck a duck he’s a smart footballer. He hasn’t been quite as damaging against top sides but that’s literally a part of a lower team on the ladder typically kicking less goals overall against higher-placed teams. Saturday night presents him with a chance to further enhance his credentials, and to redeem himself a little after his quiet performance in the crunch match against North – should the Kangaroos lose on Saturday afternoon then the Swans present that challenge to him. Perhaps Paddy might make his job easier; I hope he does because Roo will probably need to be up the ground taking another 16 marks for us.

We’re gonna need it all firing again on Saturday night either way. We’re playing merely for the chance to sneak into the eight, but the Swans will be playing for top spot, and at the very least a top-two spot with just seven percentage points separating them in second from Geelong in fifth.

Another drink in the Bull Ring post-match with everyone before it was time to walk back to the city on a beautiful Sunday afternoon for a relaxed tram ride home. Should North salute this coming Saturday afternoon expect plenty of Shenton and Holmes action that night, or whoever else might have been named as emergency on the Thursday night. It all counts, bit by bit, towards the future. This year or not, slowly, things are starting to really matter again. The sunshine over the MCG on Sunday represented the better days of looking ahead.

RedWhiteandBlack.com.au 2016 Best Player Votes – Round 20
Tim Membrey – 3
Jack Newnes – 2
Seb Ross – 2
Blake Acres – 1
Leigh Montagna – 1
Dylan Roberton – 1

Totals
Jack Steven – 32
Nick Riewoldt – 22
Seb Ross – 21
Tim Membrey – 18
Tom Hickey – 14
Leigh Montagna – 10
Blake Acres – 8
David Armitage – 8
Jack Newnes – 8
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

Spencer does some things; that’s pretty much it really

Round 22, 2014
Richmond 6.0, 8.3, 13.5, 15.8 (98)
St Kilda 2.2, 4.7, 5.9, 10.12 (72)
Crowd: 47,188 at the MCG, Sunday, 24th August ay 4.40pm

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As I left the MCG on Sunday night, I had a kind of junk food buzz from Spencer White’s three goals. Or perhaps the kind you get listening to Morrissey.

But the more I think about it the more clearly this was a stand-out element of the game. Partly because he finally played and actually kicked three goals, but also partly because come this point of the season – when all you’re playing for is to not get the number one pick – no one will remember much otherwise. I certainly can’t remember anything else.

Sunday evening, 4.40pm start, cool MCG, only a sprinkle of rain – not great circumstances for a match by any means, but it wasn’t overly bad and this one was only ever going to count for the Tigers. For me it was a chance to stamp my return to Melbourne life after three weeks visiting my parents in London. It wasn’t a long time but it was great to watch the Saints with Dad (albeit on my laptop screen); otherwise you really do feel a long way from the game when it’s summer over there (yes, they still have a summer of sorts) and the games are over by the time you’ve got your day up and going.

It was also a chance to use the MCC membership for the first time this season (the Hawks debacle fortunately one of the only Saints matches I’ve missed this year). Better late than never, although I do have nearly all of September to give it a run, too.

I sat with my brother goalside of the centre favouring the City End along with a few of his friends. It was an incredibly relaxed atmosphere (around us, anyway) and, as I’ve said before in this reviews, when the Saints are this bad the games still serve the purpose of a valued social outing with my brother. I really do get something even in sitting back and having a chat with him about the Saints and everything else (no beers this week though, being in the MCC – had to settle for the coffee).

A six-goal start to the Tigers meant yet another game this season which the Saints supporters would wait for all week, only to spend almost its entirety waiting for it to finish. Even when My Favourite Hair in the AFL kicked a lovely set shot goal from the boundary to bring us within seven points, and even though we ended up winning two out of the four quarters, I don’t think anyone at the ground felt the result was in doubt. Billy Longer’s reaction to Ben Griffiths’ early goal basically summed it up – a few minutes in and we’re already done.

It dare say it still feels strange at this time of year not going to the game with the idea that the team will be out there hunting for something serious. That the time just might be now. Instead, there were about 18 Saints supporters on hand to see not much at all.

The Lenny Hayes Farewell Tour entered its penultimate week to, I must say, what felt like little fanfare. He got a small cheer each time he received the ball, but overall it was a far cry from the Robert Harvey exit in front of 77,002 in a Preliminary Final. I know he had the home game devoted to him a few weeks ago but this was still the last time most of us would be able to see him live.

Honestly, it really did look like the players were playing for fark all. It wasn’t just a six goal start to the Tigers, but also that we didn’t look like scoring a goal.

You barely had time to sit down before Jack Riewoldt had begun resumption of regular proceedings and was on his way to taking his usual giant shit on St Kilda’s head. It was somewhere between “fitting” and “even more annoying” that half of his six goals came from arsey Geelong-style set-shot kicks from around the corner.

Armo inexplicably found the ball in traffic deep in defence and kicked it about 30 metres across goal, which my brother broke the bemused silence following with, “If you did that in the Under 12’s the coach would be pretty flat”.

This came after a Seb Ross nothing kick to Roo on a rare foray forward; a good Mav contest undone by his own poorly placed kick to Tom Curren, and then Newnes getting caught. There was a concerningly long list of “One of those days” moments.

Then the moment we’d all been waiting for – SPENCER WHITE DID A THING. A mark, and then – as often occurs – a kick, but the passage ended up with a Schneider (do we need him?) point.

It took a dubious but otherwise commendable Nathan Wright smother-tackle-handball effort to set up Shenton who atoned for his earlier miss (so he of all people ended up kicking both our first behind and goal). Strangely, it was the start of a chain of four goals which should have threatened to turn the match on its head, but when the aforementioned Favourite Hair brought us within seven points I don’t think anyone was seriously considering that some sort of highly competitive Australian Rules football match was about to unfold in front of them.

So it proved. The Tigers slowed it down, held possession and worked their way to Jack. It was a sign of the maturity of a Richmond team that were storming their way to eight wins in a row, after very nearly reaching the top four last season. A couple of steadying goals for the Tigers to round out the half and they were out to a 50-point lead deep into the third term (even the half-time scoreline of 8.3 to 4.7 showed an equal number of scoring shots). If it wasn’t for Richmond taking the foot off a little and three Spencer White goals  this could have been really ugly. When the final siren went, it hardly felt like the conclusion to a match decided by “only” 26 points.

Let’s get it out of the way. Spencer White. OK. Cool. How do we feel? We should be feeling half-decent I think. He didn’t get a whole lot of the footy but he clearly made the most of things when he did. His first goal came from some nice body work to get to the drop of the ball from My Favourite Hair pushing hard up the ground and giving off to Joey. It followed a Roo kick in which, after so many times of grilling teammates after poor delivery to him in recent years (and rightfully so, might I had), the skipper spotted the first-gamer on a hard lead and gave him an absolutely dog’s balls pass. But, as the captain should, he made up for it within minutes. Spencer reciprocated and calmly kicked the goal from 30 in front with his rather lackadaisical style.

Dare I say it, but combined with the manner in which he kicked his three goals off the left with the minimal follow-through of the boot, did it not recall the great G-Train? His second and third goals, wheeling onto his left foot, instantly reminded me of the G-Train’s specialty also. Likewise, his minimal celebrations capped off the quietly confident attitude he seems to have.

The second goal I really liked because he seemed to position himself for his teammates to do the right thing by their structural expectations. Once he got the footy his opponent was quickly on his hammer but he showed some real composure to turn around and kick the goal – also note that, again, despite the minimal follow-through the kick easily went about 50 metres. The third was lucky because Mav and TC were there to spill up the mark he should have taken in the first place, but again, he atoned for it by working himself into the space and finishing.

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Certainly from the reports of his VFL appearances his ability to get to the right position offensively and defensively have been key topics. There were a few occasions he did hang a bit off the packs, but given what else we saw of him you could easily put that down to a first gamer simply being unsure if that’s what he was meant to be doing – Roo was right next to him on a couple of occasions and I think that might have confused him a little. Because it wasn’t until Roo was pushed up the ground during the third quarter that Spencer all of sudden found himself confidently leading and putting himself in good spots in attack. Although he got caught his attempted burn along the boundary in the third was a good sign, too. He clearly needs a bit more muscle and to work on his tank, but he’s also 19 and has played one game.

I think the exciting thing about this is how much more promise he’s already shown than so many of the tried and failed tall(er) forwards this club has tried since the Gehrig/Riewoldt/Hamill/Koschitzke attack of a decade ago, when the club took the step up to being a consistently strong performer. The roll call is spectacular in its disappointment – Paul Cahill, Matthew Ferguson, Tom Lynch, Fergus Watts, Beau Maister, Tommy Walsh, Justin Sweeney, Ryan Gamble, Charlie Gardiner, Will Johnson, Daniel Archer. And that’s not to mention Tom Lee, My Favourite Player Arryn Siposs, Sam Dunell and even Josh Bruce and Tom Simpkin, who we’re all still waiting on. That’s without including all the briefly-tried-and-failed experiments of Barry Brooks, James Gwilt, Zac Dawson and Sam Gilbert, and the unfortunate Jarryd Allen.

Which, of course, brings us to the Big Rhys Bandwagon, which has clearly been lost in the Spencer White Roadshow’s rearview mirror. Unfortunately, but rather predictably, apart from the obvious this game will simply fall into the unconscious regions of our St Kilda supporting lives, and Rhys was no exception. He suffered the ignominy of being subbed out of the game with fark all impact, and in all honesty I only remember two things that he did, and one didn’t even happen during the game. That was to be the last Saints player off the ground, shaking hands with the Tigers players as they broke from their guard of honour. Which I thought was strange because it appeared as though Rhys of all people was representing the club in thanking the Tigers after their admirable show of respect to Lenny.

The other was actually a positive – Billy Longer, still quite fresh from his slightly overhyped and ultimately unsatisfying Schneiderman appearance, put in a softish effort going back with the footy just forward of centre wing, and Rhys came in with a big tackle on Billy’s opponent and then went in for a bit of push and shove immediately after. So, you ask, where the hell is that throughout the rest of the game? After the Fremantle game we were all jumping around celebrating the official arrival of Big Rhys, and after some of his form earlier this year you might have been forgiven for thinking that he’d played enough games to know how to recapture and then maintain that form. But this club doesn’t forgive, and it will let us down some way, somehow. For now, we’re just left with another question mark.

Question marks aplenty, really. Writing a report at this time of year is hard to morph into simply a season review for whoever I mention. I was just about to bring up Cam Shenton but what am I going to say that’s any different to what I’m going to say about him next week? Or in the season wrap faff we’ll no doubt produce throughout September? Well, he kicked our first goal and first behind through some hard running, and also took a nice contested mark on the wing which led to Roo’s goal from the boundary.

Nathan Wright’s game has similarities but I think Wright has a better head on his shoulders. He hits the contest harder and he’s probably more reliable structurally and with the ball in hand. Who comes out for Savage? What about Webster? Has Brodie Murdoch shown enough? Is Farren Ray still playing regularly when that time comes? Again, all questions on a more macro level, relevant to 2015 and beyond rather than next week.

It meant nothing really but it was at least nice to see the players gave enough of a shit – even if only for their own careers – to kick five goals to two in the final term. The Tigers fans had been singing their song for nearly 20 minutes by the time the final siren sounded.

It had also been some time since the throng of supporters around the St Kilda race had begun growing so fans could get their last glimpse in the flesh of Lenny in his St Kilda jumper. Like his most famous moment and most famous performance, it was in the St Kilda clash jumper – albeit a slightly different version – on the MCG. But Lenny was clearly embarrassed by the attention. He’ll never walk off the MCG a St Kilda premiership player. Indeed, he walked off the MCG on Sunday with St Kilda staring at its 27th wooden spoon. Whatever the task, however, there was still some hard work ahead. And before the memories could come flooding back, he was gone.

Spencer Spencer Spencer Spencer Spencer Spencer Spencer

Aaand here we go.

Spencer White will make his debut. A guy most people thought was a myth will hog most of the pre-match spotlight, rather than a legend who is playing his final game in the club’s home state.

It wasn’t the case until yesterday’s naming of the final team. Until, the week (from a St Kilda perspective, remember) had been all about Jason Holmes starring in the club’s entry into this year’s Virgin Australia Film Contest, which seems to be some vague annual competition open to about four AFL teams.

The most striking thing about this year was that it was a dramatic shift in tone to last year’s, which was so ridiculous it had claimed the St Kilda careers of Scott Watters, Jordan Staley, Jay Lever, Ahmed Saad, Ben McEvoy and Jackson Ferguson within weeks.

It was full of bad acting, but they weren’t given much choice with the script. This year, Jason Holmes somehow demonstrates that it’s possible for an AFL footballer to put in a convincing performance in the voiceover booth, as well as on camera. As melodramatic as it is, I actually like the last blurred shot of him in the background walking out onto Corporate Stadium in a St Kilda uniform – something we actually haven’t seen before.

Likewise Spencer White. For all the hype Saints fans have built up around him – and even members of the wider footy public – the only highlights and imagery we have of him so far are in the black and gold stripes and blue collar and cuffs of Sandringham (and occasionally the sky-bordering-on-highlighter blue clash, or the unnecessarily mostly-white clash).

What are we expecting from Spencer this Sunday? Last week aside, we’ve recently gone in with the attack set-up of the My Favourite-Bandwagon Alliance complimented by Josh Bruce hanging around doing stuff. Spencer in his first game probably won’t have the physical presence Bruce would and you’d expect his natural game ideally to be somewhere between Roo’s and and Rhys’s games – quicker than Roo and can play deep, press up or run back into open space. Dare I say it…like Buddy? I think the problem with that comparison is more to do with people’s reaction to it – they think he’s actually going to be as good as Buddy. Rather, it’s more his style is like Franklin’s, although at pick 25 and with some of the bits and pieces we’ve seen we realise he could be anything (for better or worse). Also, he’s 19 FFS.

The knock’s been on his defensive work so as anyone from the club who’s commented on him this week has said, Sunday will be all about providing a contest, whether it be at the ball or off the ball. Simple, I guess.

Unfortunately Shane Savage fractured his arm in TWO places at TRAINING on Friday. Fark knows how that happens, but it means Brodie Murdoch comes in. Fine by me in the sense that it’s a great chance for Brodie (who kicked his goal with a banana set-shot kick at the MCG against Richmond in a 4.40pm Sunday game last year), but geez that’s tough for Sav. Over the past eight games he’s almost been in our best in seven of those, and regardless of Friday’s mishap all of a sudden we feel like we have a long-term option off half-back.

Also into the side, perhaps bemusingly, is CJ. In a week in which Richo talked about really changing up the list after the season, surely a 30 year-old who has trouble kicking an Australian Rules football is being brought in for his last chance?

Jimmy Gwilt wasn’t so fortunate. If you’re in his position and you’re getting dropped for Round 22 when your side is on the bottom of the ladder, I think it says a lot about the club’s plans for him. I think we’ve all got a soft spot for Jimmy too – he was one of the few guys to really step up in 2010 and improve on the previous year when for so many that season seemed to be simply about doing just enough.

And uh, yeah, let’s not forget the opposition, considering that’s who we’re playing against and so on. The Tigers are roaring (and so on) and fark, they may well be in the eight by the end of the round. Dusty’s out with a hamstring though, and whilst that’s a huge blow overall I don’t think it will make or break them this Sunday night. They’re looking every bit of the team that was finished just outside the four last season, and rather strangely, if they do sneak in and lose the first week then they’ll have finished exactly where they did last year.

Look, unless the entire Richmond team broke out in awful acne and were put on Minocycline and they all came down with unpredictable but violent diarrhea (just a hypothetical scenario I thought up), no selection decisions are really going to influence this one. Barring a Bizarro game echoing the Freo day out (yes, that actually happened), you’d expect Cotchin to have another day out against the Saints and Deledio and Ellis to use a lot of footy to good effect. Look out for Jack Riewoldt trying to get St Kilda back to personal bunny status too.

Ultimately, for St Kilda fans this match will be about a chance to see one of the greatest Saints in person for the final time. The hype around Spencer from some may suggest we may also be witnessing the dawn of a juggernaut, but we won’t know that for a long time. What we do know is this is the last time we go to the ground to see Lenny play, so soak that up if nothing else.