Shane Savage Posts

Acres and Membrey do heaps of good stuff

Round 6, 2016
Melbourne 5.3, 8.3, 11.5, 15.6 (96)
St Kilda 3.4, 9.9., 17.11, 20.15 (135)
Crowd: 27,260 at Etihad Stadium, Saturday, April 30 at 1.45pm

So for all intents and purposes Saturday was to be the day that Melbourne broke two long-standing droughts – their first win against the Saints since 2006 and their first win at Etihad since 2007. Who else other than the Saints to provide such a wonderful opportunity for so much relief and joy in the one hit? Mmm yeah. *Edit* But it wasn’t until Tuesday morning after the game I realised that they’d knocked off the Giants at the Corporate Dome in the last game of last year, so I guess I was running on a distracting and distorting cocktail of cynicism and, uh, cynicism.

Our disappointing showing against GWS made the performances against Collingwood and the Hawks seem like distant memories and the Dees had won back-to-back games for the first time in half a decade and were ready to show they were taking the next step beyond the muddling, bumbling teams around them, including ourselves. The time was right.

To make things more poetic the build-up in the week featured the revelation that it was to be Christian Petracca’s first game, 18 months after being selected in pick number 2 and an ACL injury; more pointedly following much public toing and froing by Trout et al as to whether the Saints would pick him or Paddy McCartin at number 1 in the 2014 draft.

By that draft week I was completely sold on Petracca. He was the explosive midfield bull our midfield needed going into the future, with midfield depth one of our key concerns going forward although by the end of 2014 just about everything was a concern. Concensus seemed to be he would be our number one choice, too.

But Paddy didn’t have the Tom Boyd or Jonathan Patton wraps of key forwards that had gone number 1 before him, nor of the day’s other looming nemesis Jesse Hogan. When it leaked early in draft week we were going with Paddy I must admit I did have to readjust my excitement levels.

At this early stage, and through all the whispers and innuendo since draft time Paddy is considered to be the more professional of the two and the one with greater leadership qualities. At the very least, I feel more confident that he is the professional individual the club has touted him to be. It wasn’t really until a few moments in his few games this year to date that McCartin showed some really improved dynamics in his game – whether it was the pack-busting marks at full speed or the hard leads deft turns high up the ground. It’s a shame he’s found himself struggling to string several games together without some kind of injury happening. I know the the diabetes thing has been floating around a fair bit but again, for now anyway, that just seems to be innuendo and an easy shot at people professing to have some sort of.

But I always thought Petracca’s gamestyle and his bubbly/boyish/confident/whatever personality struck me as the kind of player that would tear us a new one forevermore, for as long as he was a Melbourne Dee and we were the St Kilda Football Club. Thirty-plus possessions and three goals each time to torment us for not picking him. I dare say we’ll always have “Ball ahead of Judd” in the back of our minds, not to mention he’s gone to a team that just might represent one of our biggest threats to a premiership should our long-term development go as planned.

And what did the Saints do this week? “Managed” Paddy out of the team, with the official line being he needed a week off after his hamstring and concussion hits so far this year. Poetically there was something cynical about this move, like our match committee fully expected Petracca was fully expected by the match committee to dominate and kick a sealing goal as Melbourne hit party time in the last, and they needed to protect Paddy from being out there and taking it personally after five good touches in the first quarter and then fading fast.

More pragmatically, he’s here for ideally a long time and so to see him “managed” this week shouldn’t be cause for too much concern for anyone, particularly considering the concussion wasn’t due to a Kosi-style haphazardness but rather a pack-busting mark going back with the ball telling of the type of player he is, which he followed up the week after a key moment in the game (albeit without the goal to finish).

After all that I’d nabbed Melboure at $1.80 after they opened up a little lighter. I couldn’t resist. They were due and we’d be shown up something royal the previous week. I certainly wasn’t expecting Paddy to have at least temporarily lost his spot by game’s end. But if they haven’t won at Etihad by the next time we play them in Round 17 then back I’ll be backing them again.

A couple of coffees at my de facto home/office McIvers North on a beautiful Melbourne autumn morning to get things moving and set up the mind for a day void of high hopes but rather a nice social outing in the Medallion Club with Matt and Evan. I left at 11.30; it was time to meet Matt early for beverages. “I’m off to watch St Kilda lose” were my parting words to owner Cath. She couldn’t care less either way but I needed to articulate it to someone somehow.

The Medallion Club doesn’t particularly hold good memories for me so our rare vantage point from the corporate seats just reinforced the feeling of dread and inevitability. A mid-2005 loss to a lowly Essendon that put us in crisis mode, but indeed turned around our season around; black hole losses to Richmond and West Coast as the 2014 season was lowered into the ground halfway through the year and then the Schneider poster special of last year against Essendon again.

Whilst they weren’t all day games in typical Corporate Concrete Dome fashion the roof had been closed every time I’d been there. Saturday was a beautiful Melbourne Autumn day featuring two teams with a combined 301 years of history and of course, the roof was closed. The word on the roof came through on the Twitter machine late in the morning whilst I was  on the tram in so I had ample time to ready myself to sit in a section that thought it had the weight of centuries of its own history behind it that the MCC actually does, alas it doesn’t have quite the outdated pomp which sees it employ elderly grumpy people in fun blazers who pine for the day of ladies’ tickets.

My afternoon plans of a no-stress but still deflating social outing were off to a comfortable start when Membrey took off where he left us in 2015 by not leading up to the ball and hitting it on the move from a good kick from 2018-2022 Premiership Captain Jack Newnes. This year the field kicking seems to be a lot more reliable – Newnes, Savage, Sinclair, Dunstan, Ross, maybe Steven; it’s not a total calamity with ball in hand this year around.

Either way, Hogan had not just the first but the first two goals within a few minutes and with typically no one in the corporate section of the Corporate Dome we’d settled in with our padded seats and drink holders. I’m probably being harsh on the Medallion Club here because on level two of the pocket opposite us there were several bays highlighting the disdain non Etihad-tenants hold for the stadium and the disdain Saints fans have for away games even at their home ground. Ticketek, or Ticketmaster, or whoever the fuck obviously didn’t even both releasing the seats to the public.

Things opened up after haphazard disposal a neat chain of Steven and my Favourite Hair in the AFL found Membrey who ended with our first goal but it was a rare clean moment early in the game. Roo and Bruce spoiled each other in a marking contest close to goal, went up the other end for Watts to miss. If Jack Watts had kicked a goal like then my cynicism alert would have exploded, but they’d end up 17 points up late in the first term with Bugg’s goal being annoying enough. No sign yet of a Petracca dominance though.

It was around this time Acres started to really get involved. After a few games where he’s racked up decent numbers but found himself straight back at the Zebras it’s’ safe to say he won’t be dropped this week. The closest St Kilda parallel is that he’s this generation’s Brendon Goddard; finding the ball all around the ground, able to generate play, make space and finish things off. He’s always looked like a natural footballer but yesterday he really showed it off. He was in right spots several times to be part of scoring chains; his reading of the ball in the pocket in from the short throw in in the second quarter and snap goal was a real highlight in a game in which his biggest influence came in the second and third quarters in which we really made our move.

If anything he looks more sure of himself now than Goddard did at this early point in his career. Goddard was one of the closest things we had to a whipping boy in the 2004/2005 tilt and whilst he was obviously very talented it was an exponential improvement upon coming back from the knee he did in early 2007 that gave him the reputation he has today. I’m certainly not saying he’ll be as good or whatnot, but for Saints fans the type of player Goddard was for us provides something of a template.

The fact that he was been able to come straight back into the team and play that kind of game – and finish with two goals the highest numbers of any Saint if you wanted some sort of empirical proof as to his influence – reflects his natural ability and that he’s willing to back himself despite the dual personal setbacks in a short space of time. A NAB Rising Star nomination to top things off and all of a sudden we’re feeling a lot better about the “other” early pick from the 2013 draft.

Blacres’ partner-in-crime who I thought who really got things moving as the game shifted gears in the second quarter was Jack Sinclair, who right now is probably our best small forward. Lonie might get his chance to come back into the team next week following three goals and 33 possessions for the Zebras but he had gone largely missing in the fortnight or so prior, and Minchington on the weekend probably ran out of a little steam as far as his current run in the seniors goes. His seven tackles last week against the Giant masked his small numbers otherwise but on Saturday he didn’t quite have the same presence off the ball. I don’t quite count Billings in here because he’s graduated to playing a more sophisticated role with forays high up the ground (though I’ll get that in a second).

It was just after Acres was involved before Dunstan’s nice finish that Sinclair helped to set up Roo and then kicked a great goal of his own, taking on the play off the 50 metre arc, and his snap goal in the third was very deft.

One thing he has done this year, in a similar vein to Billings, is press up the ground more. He’s not spending a heap of time up there but he seems to know when it’s required. His field kicking is probably underrated too, and his pressure off the ball is consistent. The more performances he churns out like this the more remarkable it is that we picked him up in a rookie draft because we’d already drafted his mate.

A surprise in a different sort of way is the continuing good form of Seb Ross, which for me has echoes of Josh Bruce’s breakout year last year simply because I never expected it to happen. Bruce looked and still does look like the last-second fill-in for your futsal team, whilst on the other hand Seb just looked like a B-grade midfielder with an unremarkable frame and a bad haircut. But so far this year Jobe’s cousin has made me look like the whinging blog hack that I am, finding plenty of the ball and using it very smartly whether it’s been in close (most of the time) or in space.

It was a game in which we didn’t particularly dominate the stoppages, despite Hickey mostly negating man of the moment Max Gawn, but rather created turnovers via pressure in general play, which Richo alluded to in the post-match presser. It’s where guys like Ross, Steven, Armo and Dunstan looked at their best, not mention Acres and Sinclair registering five tackles, and even Minchington also.

By the time they’d run out for the second half things had really clicked, and by the three-quarter time siren we’d kicked 14.7 in two quarters. With a clumsy Josh Bruce roaming around – albeit one that finished with three goals – and no McCartin the forward line was anchored by the evergreen Roo and, of all people, Tim Membrey.

Roo is, in a way, but not an totally accurate one, in Brownlow form. Multiple goals and 20-plus possessions every week should see you get votes every time, but I have no idea if he keep this up for a year. But what are you going to do, just begrudge for not being the incredibly dynamic, well-haired player he’s been so far this year? He’s getting it done all around the ground and if he can stay fit enough – and by that I mostly mean if his knee or calf don’t give way and he can stop himself from getting knocked out regularly – then there’s no reason why he shouldn’t play in 2017. I’ve said before on here I spend more time talking about guys who are either playing poorly or who are emerging, because what else is there to say about a Nick Riewoldt that hasn’t already been said and that we don’t already know? FFS I hope he gets another finals tilt.

On the other hand, Membrey is the other, other forward that you think is good for a goal or two in the first half before fading away and you forget he’s out there until he gets a cheap possession late in the game when it’s well and truly. But something clicked on the weekend or his tattoos started working or something because he ended up with five freaking goals. One of the pleasing things was that he got from a lot of different avenues – on the break, finding space for a lead goaling from a mark, or following up a contest and snapping a goal. Between him and Acres there was plenty of novelty new guy excitement, and as I said, he just might have kept a number one draft pick out of the team. But we have to remember he hasn’t turned 22 yet and Saturday was just his 14th game. I’m not going to be expecting him to kick five next week but unless he was just making a Beau Maister club appearance we now know some of the things he’s capable of.

The moment that probably summed up the game best was Newnes pressure, steal and goal in the third quarter after Jack Viney took a mark and played on in our forward line. It was aggressive and the goal out of mid-air was a flashy finish and it all looked great but it was the intent that punctuated it. The showing against GWS was incredibly disappointing and like the follow up to the similarly droll loss to the Bulldogs there was a real sense of wanting to atone for the poor performance. There’s been six games now and we can say confidently that at least half of them have been played with a real sense of purpose and pride and in what the club and its personnel are trying to build and achieve. We’ve waited a while for those times in which you can say, that’s what we’ve been looking for in the younger guys, or from this team who’s next serious premiership tilt won’t feature the more senior players but rather the kids. It’s not the leap to an entirely new level just yet – that’s still some time away – but for the first time in what seems a long time it feels like we’re seeing the right signs.

Redwhiteandblack.com.au 2016 Best Player Votes – Round 5
Blake Acres – 3
Nick Riewoldt – 3
Tim Membrey – 2
Jack Sinclair – 1
Jack Steven – 1

Totals
Nick Riewoldt – 10
Jack Steven – 9
Jack Newnes – 6
David Armitage – 5
Leigh Montagna – 5
Jack Billings – 4
Tom Hickey – 4
Blake Acres – 3
Seb Ross – 3
Sam Fisher – 2
Tim Membrey – 2
Shane Savage – 2
Josh Bruce – 1
Sean Dempster – 1
Sam Gilbert – 1
Jack Sinclair – 1
Mav Weller – 1

Respect and responsibility

Round 3, 2016
St Kilda 6.3, 9.6, 15.7, 18.11 (119)
Collingwood 4.3, 9.4, 10.6, 14.6 (90)
Crowd: 50,903 at the MCG, Saturday, April 9th at 1.45pm

Well, wtf.

Following last week’s conversion of the Concrete Dome to a rubbish tip who could guess that one of the club’s most stirring wins in recent history would follow just seven days later?

Collingwood certainly didn’t present the challenge that the Bulldogs did but coming off 5.6 and the Pies’ thrilling late, late show you would have thought a gulf built by momentum (or lack thereof) alone was enough between the two teams that Collingwood should be able to see us off.

Which would have been appropriate in a very St Kilda kind of way, with the “celebrations” around the 50th anniversary of the 1966 premiership underpinned by feelings of embarrassment in the form of no premierships since and the ghosts of coming sadly close not once, but twice just a few years ago – one of those against the day’s opposition.

Indeed, it felt more like the 6th anniversary of the 2010 Grand Final Draw and Replay, with someone amazing at AFL House deciding to plant public focus from firmly on the Grand Final Draw-into-Replay concept being canned during the week. With that in mind there was more acknowledgement of a Collingwood premiership at our expense rather than vice-versa.

The fact it was our home game Collingwood’s own ground made things feel as if we were even more in their domain. Dad, Matt and I were keen to capitalise on our MCC memberships but as Saints members were reminded via text on match morning we had access to the Hassett and Medallist bars (where Matt and Dad watched the final quarter of the Replay from) on level 2 to watch the game from if things went south, rather than going into the bowels of the MCC to the BullRing and watching the game on any of four small TVs, to which Rich suggested our 2016 membership slogan should have been Kramer’s immortal words, “now let’s push this giant ball of oil out the window”.

Like the Draw in 2010, we were sauntering around Swan Street pre-match, this time in search for brunch rather than a drink to settle uncontrollable pre-Grand Final nerves. The Cheeky Monkey came up trumps and Matt declared his favourite thing ever was that Nathan Freeman was playing in Sandy’s development team today. We didn’t have any it was going to be a really big day.

We talked about the gamut of ‘66 acknowledgement in the lead-up to gameday – despite the genius at AFL house getting excited about Grand Final extra time specifically this week – with The Final Story and YouTube hero mashfan72’s “Last 4 Minutes” idea utilised on the League’s site. But it was the special edition of Open Mike we were keenest to dissect. We all agreed it was good, but it’s testament to the shithouseness of the club that if you gave the job to me I could have returned a documentary several hours long including details of 1991/92, more on 1998, and covering the underrated, amazing three-year storm that was 2004/05/06 in depth as well. It served to perhaps get a few more different viewpoints but other than that and the massive scar running the length of Jamie Shanahan’s face it was mostly going over old ground.

The players came out and lined the race towards the banner with the usual flag-waving kids and they became simply one of them – bystanders watching the heroes of the club that saluted, led by Cowboy and Barry Breen, bring out the 1966 Cup and break through the St Kilda banner with the team once more. The mythology of that 1966 team was reinforced when My Favourite Hair in the AFL, with a tinge of sadness and regret on the part of supporters, came over to the leading duo to shake their hands as his superiors. As I said, and as almost every St Kilda supporter would say, it was Riewoldt who should have been the one to lead the club to its second premiership and find himself on the same pantheon as Cowboy, Breen, Doc, et. al. But here he was as simply another representative of a transitioning St Kilda team reaching for that next flag some time in the future.

Parallels between Saturday and 2010 Draw ended within the game’s opening seconds when Collingwood ominously kicked a very quick goal. By quarter’s end the game has turned into a free-flowing replica of the Round 1 game against Port and we’d topped our 5.6 last week with 6.3 by the first change.

Once we got past the first several minutes that echoed the previous week’s – the opposition with more and cleaner possession, and us struggling to find our bearings with or without the footy – we were much cleaner and more purposeful with the ball, and for the first time in a long time we looked more comfortable specifically in the expanses of the MCG than anywhere else.

The pressure was up around the ground, so that basic element was covered off, but the willingness to take the game on led to more than enough space and goal scoring opportunities created in dangerous areas. Sinclair’s mark, play-on and long ball to Paddy in the goal square a good indication of where footy is at in 2016.

Sinclair gave another off, to Lonie whilst Paddy was on the fence chewing the fat with the cheer squad, and is a good barometer for our forward pressure being up and about. Lonie was quite wasteful throughout the day and there’s a big difference on how your performance is viewed when you kick 1.3 from gettable shots as opposed to 3.1. Fortunately Lonie had plenty of help with the expanded mosquito fleet featuring Sinclair, Billings and Minchington and Savage too later in the game. Throw in Weller too, but that’s a pretty ripped mosquito.

They needed to step up, too, because two thirds of our forward line anchors were concussed by half-time. Roo was looking really smooth running up and down the ground and after 300 games of drop punts decided that it was time to go around the corner for shots from the pocket. His hit looked bad when it happened – any hit on a lowered head does – and from our distant vantage point I think we’d all feel more comfortable if he did miss a week. That’s despite him being cleared by the club doctors in accordance with the concussion test in place by the AFL, but they decided that there were other signs from his reaction that he shouldn’t go back out.

Paddy’s was a different story, lauded for essentially what was a self-inflicted wound taking a nearly career-defining (at this point) pack mark at full speed and height. It was a shame because his first half was featured some of his best work to date, having kicked 1.2 and putting himself in the right places at the right time. He could easily have kicked three goals by the time he went off.

He and many others seemed to be much better for the run or another game under the belt and had this situation been in place a week earlier the team might have out of steam in a big way, much like the Round 1 faltering.

But there some things that were simply a step up from the week before regardless. It was the desperation in close that allowed for so many breaks – Newnes’ lunge and smack away in the middle of the ground in the third quarter led to Weller’s third goal; Armitage’s own stretching dive tight on the boundary to outbody Crisp and keep the ball in as the clock ticked down in the final term led to the sealer in Steven’s third goal of his own.

There seemed to be people who thought the effort overall last week was pathetic, and others that simply thought the Bulldogs were simply too slick and anyone poo-pooing our effort was being too harsh. As always with these kinds of things the truth was probably somewhere between the two, but I could never say our endeavour in the contest was anywhere near the same.

Likewise the follow-up work of players to provide simply provide options – Gilbert’s second goal came from him initially making a contest against two Collingwood defenders and working forward to follow Dunstan and then Bruce’s hands; Billings was a part of the chain in the last quarter at half-back that led to his own vital goal 45 metres out 30 seconds later (or what would for him have felt like 30 minutes of standing by himself in a goalscoring position waiting for someone to notice him).

Given the workrate was high, the MCG’s width offered extra reward for the hard work with the ability for Billings, Ross, Newnes, Montagna, Savage, Dunstan, Webster and others that little extra time and space to ensure possession was more precise than it was last week. It gave the players confidence to move the ball quickly once the turnover was completed or a path cleared.

Indeed, all of those players got career-high or close-to possession counts, and Dunstan played probably his best game (or at least quarter in the third term). When you’re a Luke Dunstan and still a pre-season or two away from the desired tank and/or Mav arms, knowing where to be in the play is critical to being effective and he was in all the right places moving through traffic, with his positioning up forward and quick thinking in the chain that led to Gilbert’s second goal critical.

Ross is in a similar situation for the time being but is deceptively tall for his build and his poor, perennially-slightly-overgrown haircut also makes him look smaller (and doesn’t do him any favours aesthetically). But another pre-season seems to have simultaneously improved his tank and bulked him up, and he’s moving through traffic a lot more smoothly and finding himself with more time and space. Fortunately his disposal has improved as well, which tempers my constant questioning on here of what a good game from him actually looks like and if that game is actually effective. All of a sudden he’s finding the ball and using distributing out of tight spots well and consistently.

We inched ever closer on Saturday to Jack Newnes being appointed the 2018-2022 Premiership Captain, in what was definitely his most effective game to date. He’s in that 50-plus games territory in which commentators like to say players will take their initial real leaps as players and he’s using the ball smartly in different situations, as well as keeping a tough edge and willing to take on any physical contact.

Realistically he played second rung to Joey throughout the day however, with Jimmy Webster as the extra support, which was more of a reflection on busy Joey was. People talk up the defensive “generals” and usually they’re the bigger guys – in our case Fisher and Dempster – but Joey was the one directing traffic off half-back with Newnes his deputy and Webster as the above-average-ability work experience kid.

I’d say Joey has almost turned into this team’s own version of Aussie Jones, but we probably have two now counting Sav as well Sav and Webster play slightly different roles off half-back and their ceilings for disposal effectiveness are probably measured a little differently, too. Sav is about running with the ball and distance on the kick, whereas Webster has more of an element of precision to his game. But when both are frequently involved in the play, once you add that to Joey and Newnes doing what they do the back half looks a lot more creative.

That’s not to say the bugger guys Fisher and Dempster weren’t pivotal. Their presence in the air as the Pies tried getting things going with quick balls into their forward 50 in the second half was the best it’s been for a long time, and in the first 15 or 20 minutes or so of the last term, as the nearly 51,000 expected the Saints to tire and Lonie, Bruce and Armitage frittered away easy chances to seal the game, that presence was something we couldn’t take for granted in the way we might have – Fisher’s particularly – in recent times.

I’m not sure where Hugh Goddard is at, but with Blake Acres making another strong case for a recall and Nathan Freeman dominating the development side match in his comeback in a rare type of performance the focus on who’s next in line are elsewhere and I think we can wait another week without Hugh and, for that matter, Jake Carlisle. I can’t promise I won’t be filthy on anyone and everyone next week after we’ve been rolled by 12 goals though.

As for team balance, the side actually operated quite well without both of Paddy and Roo in the second half. Hickey started to present more in the front half and showed his intelligence with his perfectly-weighted kick to the goalsquare for Josh Bruce to take the spoils of. Sav managed to get himself involved in the latter part of the game up forward (fortunately we didn’t have to rely on his goalkicking in a tight finish; see Round 21 last year), involved in our last goal to Sinclair, who did some really good things all around the ground. I mentioned his part in setting up Paddy in the first quarter but his 40-metre pass tight on the boundary line in the third quarter from back of centre was an underrated highlight of his game.

The inclusion Minch wasn’t overly busy but his game certainly had highlights of his own. His exhilarating takeaway out of the middle and hitting up of Mav for the latter’s third, and his quick hands out of congestion to Steven for the aforementioned sealing goal showed off both parts to his fast, attacking game and he certainly earned another chance after backing up his ridiculously strong numbers in the VFL practice matches.

Mav himself continues to show how far he’s come since he was the first ever pick for the Gold Coast – a novelty of the game in its history and in name, but when his game clicks he’s a tough, uncompromising midfielder that knows how to kick goals from different parts of the ground and via different avenues.

I questioned Gilbert’s worth to the side through the week when Blake Acres is playing for the Zebras but he was genuinely good and displayed why he’s physically such an attribute to the team – he effectively played tall and small in the same passage of play for his second goal, and gave Steven and Armitage a chop out physically in the stoppages.

It had been a long time since we rode the sustained wave of momentum throughout a second half. Not one of domination of a depleted side, or a kamikaze comeback, but one in which you pull away from the opposition with an air of responsibility and dependability. For the first time we were putting genuine confidence in Seb Ross to break out of traffic and get the ball out, or for Jack Billings to push up the ground and find a teammate with a pinpoint pass off either boot – and not to mention stand up when the game’s narrative needed a defining juncture. For Jack Newnes to know exactly what the game needed when the ball was in his hands, or for Josh Bruce to force a contest in the forward half and know that he’ll follow it up immediately.

On the day we acknowledged the heroes of what is still the solitary premiership in this club’s 143-year history, what better way to honour them than a demonstration of utmost respect for the journey the club is currently on and what it is trying to achieve. For now, that’s the most we can hope for. The days when you get it – especially on a sunny Saturday afternoon at the MCG – are what make it possible to get through this part of the journey.

RWB 2016 Best Player Votes – Round 3
Leigh Montagna – 3
Jack Billings – 2
Jack Newnes – 2
Jack Steven – 2
Mav Weller – 1

Totals
Jack Steven – 7
Leigh Montagna – 5
Tom Hickey – 4
Jack Newnes – 4
Nick Riewoldt – 4
Jack Billings – 2
David Armitage – 1
Josh Bruce – 1
Sam Gilbert – 1
Mav Weller – 1

We need to talk irrationally about Holmes, Savage, et al.

Round 21, 2015
St Kilda 5.4, 8.7, 11.9, 14.13 (97)
Geelong Cats 5.1, 9.2, 13.4, 15.7 (97)
Crowd: 25,245 at Etihad Stadium, Saturday, August 22nd at 7.20pm

Any close game, and more so a draw, will inevitably have everyone taking out their science starter kit microscopes with the bacteria images already printed onto the slides and declaring how either side got dicked because of one or two easily digestible scapegoats.

So let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way, namely Shane Savage. In Lonie’s absence he did his best Schneider impression and frittered away a chance to put us up by 10 points well into time-on, and then put us in front by five points with 14 seconds left from close range – this depressingly St Kilda-like repeat offending, eerily similar to Schneider’s efforts late in Round 5 against the Bombers.

The difference was, it was Savage that was responsible for the already infamous Stevie J tackle as the latter was waltzing into an open goal, headchecked to the left but gave nothing to the right sideview. Was he changing to the left? He could afford himself a smile as he got up afterwards though, because he’s played in three premierships, and one of them was against us. And what did he do just a couple of minutes after that? He snapped a brilliant goal on his left from the pocket. (He also kicked a goal from the just on the goal line in the third quarter into the goal umpire’s face.)

The Cats I feel have flown under the radar as a difficult team for us historically (I’m talking beyond the last 10-15 years). Until perhaps the early 90s signalled the earliest of a changing club at Moorabbin, it was the VFL overall win-loss records we had against teams like Carlton, Collingwood and Essendon that demonstrated everyone liked to comprehensively beat up on us.

Even that 1991 tilt ended with a seven-point loss to the Cats, and in the 95th season marked just the second time we had ever played them in a final. Appropriately last night finished at 97-97. Thanks to Wayne Carey and Ken McIntyre’s final 8 system for clowns, it’s been lost to history that in 1997 it was only percentage that separated ourselves at the top of the ladder from Geelong, and they had beaten us comfortably at the Cattery during the year.

Not much needs to be said about the rivalry of the aughts between the two clubs, other than to say last night was the first St Kilda home match against the Cats at Etihad Stadium since Round 14, 2009, when the two teams ran out onto the ground each at 13-0. Scores were level until Michael Gardiner’s huge mark and goal with just over a minute left, but in the Grand Final it would be one goal the difference the other way when the siren sounded (and before Max Rooke added further icing). For a few minutes early in time-on in the second quarter last night the scoreboard showed 7.7 to 7.1, the half-time score of 2009 decider.

The Saints actually beat the Cats twice in 2010, and the Qualifying Final was the first time the Saints had beaten them in a final. Motlop’s disallowed goal was in a remarkably similar spot and at a crucial time compared with that of Ling’s in the final minute of that match, after Mooney had landed in Gwilt’s back. Which brings us into the umpiring decisions that both sides will feel cruelled them. Chris Scott was whinging about the Motlop decision but conveniently neglected to mention Gregson running a casual 100 metres over the mark when Mav had the ball just outside 50 in the last minute. Then you can say well, lucky the siren went with J Murdoch running towards goal to signal three-quarter time. But then, Sav should have kicked those goals late. But he did save that goal – one great moment in one his better games – as Stevie J was walking in. Although maybe Newnes and Ross didn’t kick their shots earlier whilst their defenders Taylor and Mackie did. And you could also talk about Jack Steven’s involvement in a couple of chains that led to Geelong kicking goals. Or Luke Dunstan just totally not kicking the ball on the goal line.

All of that in itself should show that this is the kind of game that rewards doing the rights things en masse throughout a match rather than an arsey moment or two. Whilst this game wasn’t the pick of the weekend there were so many remarkable moments to stew over, to rue, to – pun intended – draw on.

Undeniably the focus coming into the game was on Jason Holmes, or as too many people kept calling him last night, “Johnny” (yes, we get it). Jason has had plenty of media time over the past couple of years – let alone the huge attention on the college comps that he was a part of  – but you’ve come a long way when you’re the guy being interviewed by Cameron Ling post-match after two hours of BT yelling and Darc sort-of-but-not-really nailing the right tone of voice for a play-by-play commentator.

You’ve also come a long when you’re an ex-college basketballer with a brother playing in the NFL and you’re fronting a media conference in Seaford with whichever journos could be arsed making the trip. The fact that he said “I’d love to have a crack at that” suggests he’s embraced the experience, and the fact that he said he’s working on his “craft” suggests he’s coached by Alan Richardson.

At least it was beyond speculation this time. This time he knew it was real, that he’d be playing this weekend. That this wasn’t a windy oval next to the beach, this was the real deal, to be broadcast probably on ESPN17 along with competitions based entirely on the Dodgeball and Baseketball films, and perhaps some highlights this week on sports discussion shows with guys who have never heard of the sport.

It’s not quite the same level as Matthew Lappin playing for the Gold Coast reserves yesterday, but if you were told at the start of last year that he’d be playing AFL footy in 2015 then you’d surely have thought the season had turned to such shit any feel-good story was a non-negotiable.

Not long after Sanford Wheeler was toiling away in Sydney during the Swans’ darker years, the AFL produced this ad with international sporting identities talking up Aussie Rules (and the short, etc.). Holmes’ debut seems to have bridged that gap in a big way. The Irish influx has edged us towards the mentality that we’re after anyone and everyone now – although that standards for Australian athletes-before-footballers are now highly benchmarked by Mark Blicavs.

The support acts indeed were the return of opposing ruckman Nathan Vardy (and him working in tandem with Blicavs, with Stanley out for the season) and Geelong looking bolster their finals chances. In the end J Holmes and Stevie J, for obviously wildly different reasons, were amongst the bigger stories

Holmes looked like he’d aerobically blown up through the second quarter, after his second centre bounce leap particularly had everyone just about jumping out of their seats and rushing onto the ground to shake his hand. His lead on the wing and mark was greeted by something louder than if Savage had have kicked either of his shots in the last minutes, as was the resulting kick. His tackle on Guthrie was huge and it was his follow-up work in the centre bounce led to Hickey’s goal in the third quarter.

But he got caught out around the ground a number of times. Vardy ran him ragged off the ball and a couple of times got to a dangerous position near goal. At one point in the second quarter Holmes was left to pick up Stevie J at high half-forward – something which shouldn’t have happened and wasn’t his fault – and Stevie J was able to run forward by himself as the Cats went into attack but the ball didn’t fall his way. This was just after Holmes had gone the tap behind from a throw-in to Roo who didn’t break stride (but kicked it out on the full). But that short period alone would have been very instructive.

Richo said after the game that we’d kicked 9.2 to 2.1 from stoppages, alluding to Holmes’ presence being the reason why we were so dominant in the hit-outs and stoppages overall. Holmes finished with 34 hit-outs out of 54 for the Saints, with the Cats getting 32. Fair to say the quality of the some of the tap-outs was superior to those of Longer and Hickey. But whilst Longer has increased his presence across the ground through the year and Hickey has done some really good things up forward (including last night), Holmes for now has very little presence around the ground. Two things; neither did Billy most weeks until mid-season, and secondly Holmes was essentially learning the game itself from scratch at VFL level, with the step up essentially another short course in learning the game. Given he hadn’t played the sport two years ago it’s more than reasonable to back him to improve quite a lot from here.

We’re probably clearing out a whole bunch of S’s at year’s end – Spencer, Saad, Schneider, Siposs, Saunders, Smarkworth and Smurdoch – so it was good timing for Minchington who’s has been hovering around being condemned to a life of ex-AFL player playing VFL tease hell. I still don’t know how guys like TDL and Jones go playing VFL with guys their teammates still involved so closely with the club that turfed them so recently. But I’m also not a professional footballer. Minch kicked the first two goals and set the tone for a game of speed and space – two things we’ve certainly struggled with in the past several weeks in the forward half. He finished with a career-best three goals in just his ninth game, and a further drilling down into his career numbers would show he’s kicked a goal in every game he’s played. The knock on him is that he doesn’t have enough of an impact away from the scoreboard, and whilst he finished with “only” 10 touches he had five tackles too, which was a step towards having a heavier presence. Lonie and Sinclair are still ahead of him, but going on last night he might turn out to be very handy at least.

My 2nd Favourite Hair in the AFL was the other key forward on the night and by half-time had three goals. It looked like he’d finally come out of his sort-of-slump (goals on the board always mask that kind of thing for a bigger forward), although one of our better rebounds on the night saw him drop the easiest mark of all time. In front of the members he also had the dubious distinction of becoming The Man Who Spoiled Himself, in I assume anticipating an marking effort from his opponent over the top. As we came out of defence with a straightforward pass to him, he was well in the clear but he put a single hand up to ultimately stifle his own phantom marking attempt. His also missed a set shot in the third quarter that was replied to immediately sixfold (i.e. with a goal) by Gregson. Cheers.

It was up to Sam Gilbert of all Australian Rules footballers to pick up the slack in that passage and do what he couldn’t quite finish in the 2010 Grand Finals, and uh, I guess by that measurement didn’t quite finish last night either. But he was still good; probably his best game since that draw? His two goals were both monster set shot kicks that hit heights echoing Kosi’s long range efforts. He also found the ball 21 times and managed to shank only a couple, as well as laying a game-high nine tackles. A bit of time through the middle too and perhaps he’s en route to a changing, more dynamic role. First things first though, he’s got to stay on the park.

Gilbert’s move forward was made possible by Bruce kicking goals (at least in the first half) and My Favourite Hair in the AFL playing across the ground, essentially as a wingman, to good effect. In a young side 22 touches and 10 marks was key in having a solid presence throughout the play, and his contests hard on the boundary to force the ball out twice displayed both his fitness and his nous. He was up forward for periods of course, and he pulled a Spencer White in running himself into the ground and resting by himself 40 metres out waiting for a Joe the Goose. The kick was the kind of flat punt shocker we’ve come accustomed to from him, but this one did vaguely enough.

It also helps when you’ve got Hugh Goddard getting invaluable experience at worst playing mostly on Hawkins. The Cats would have acknowledged him as susceptible, particularly one out when they were on the rebound, but he Hugh did well to keep his head up and keep playing his own game despite being beaten a few times. He was mature and smart enough to run off his man and take the mark in front of the members at a tense point in the game, and won a huge one-one-one in defence late in the game. Sam Fisher played one of his better games this year, too, allowing guys like Gilbert to move around and for the team to be that much more dynamic.

Membrey’s inconsistency continued, as he did what’s become a trademark which is a good start followed by not much else. A really nice set shot was our fourth straight goal to open the game, but shortly after he botched a forward 50 entry by not going to what was effectively a free Tom Hickey near goal; and this after weeks of looking for that kind of option. The pressure was up afterwards to sugarcoat it a little, but Steven got carried away at the next entry and kicked about four metres to Membrey instead of long to a couple of tall options close to goal. Whilst that one wasn’t Membrey’s fault it was mostly downhill for him from there. Paddy was pretty good in the VFL and with Roo maybe or maybe not finding touch up the ground there’s room for a swap there. But when you’re a team full of this kind of inexperience at the end of a long year everything is a maybe or maybe not at best.

Unfortunately Jack Steven decided to step down to that bracket on a couple of telling occasions. In these eras when it comes to close games you’re relying on younger guys who you simply can’t trust in these situations (Shenton, Saunders), because they’re simply not experienced enough (Shenton, Saunders) to understand the pressure (Shenton, Saunders) as well as execute in the circumstances (Shenton, Saunders). All those brackets are harsh on Shenton and Saunders but I don’t know what they were doing at all. Curiously, Shenton ended up in the forward line, and far less curiously Saunders was subbed out of the game after literally not getting a kick. Anyway, Steven’s kick into a Geelong player on the rebound went straight to Hawkins for a goal, and it was his lack of awareness that got him caught late in the game and the ball spilled out for Cockatoo’s goal that put them in front.

So we were still prone as a team to royally turning over opportunities, Steven or not. The scoreboard alone would reflect that, with our 14.13 far more wasteful than their 15.7, not to mention to the fact that at one stage they were 13.3 with all the more scoreboard pressure on us throughout the game.

After several years of being dominated by Geelong, complete with two years of being on the receiving end of smackings at the Cattery – of 101 and 96 points respectively, with nearly identical scorelines – this felt like the first time we’d come out of the shadow created by the lost opportunity on Grand Final Day in 2009. This was a result engineered by a young team showing development and playing an effective style of footy. That the Cats were playing merely for a finals berth also heightened that, as opposed to the top two and top three finishes of the last two years.

But through all of that Stevie J was smiling after being run down in the goal mouth because he could; Geelong so completely and crushingly won what over a decade ago promised to be the next great rivalry. Again, last night the Cats proved just too hard to move. This game was all about the future, but it also held a few reminders.

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Jeeeeeeeeeeeez

Round 17, 2015
Port Adelaide 4.5, 8.5, 12.7, 17.10 (112)
St Kilda 1.4, 3.10, 4.12, 6.13 (49)
Crowd: 36,850 at Adelaide Oval, Sunday, August 2nd at 1.10pm (12.40pm CST)

There’s dog shit and there’s dog shit.

There’s the kind that we had to put up with during week in regards to Adam Goodes. People from Andrew Bolt, Rita Panahi and Shane Warne to Alan Jones and Grant Thomas and most people on Twitter and BigFooty not understanding the position of privilege they’re in, and the position they’re in of collectively totally not coming up with actual arguments that make genuine sense in regards to anything to do with the issue. Angry, helpless, mobilised, determined, confused, dismayed. There is no way to reason with these people and I can only assume Adam Goodes feels vaguely similar upon realising that attempts at education and reconciliation – and specifically his own, having dealt with racism his entire life – only infuriate and annoy these types of people. They apparently don’t want to deal with it in any way, lest something that so far remains undefined happens.

So we got to actual footy and there were some touching acts of solidarity, with Richmond and the Bulldogs wearing their indigenous jumpers and Melbourne wearing armbands in the colour of the indigenous flag. Zero points are awarded to the Collingwood clowns for booing Jeff Garlett’s celebration on Saturday afternoon.

That Sunday’s paper revealed St Kilda is planning on hosting the first Pride match next year should tell people some really, really good things are happening. The club has said it has received correspondence from people angry or dismayed at the idea. To those who had registered those complaints with the club: feel free to defend your free speech all you want, but free speech is designed to challenge ourselves and each other and weed out poison attitudes like that.

Then there’s what we witnessed on Sunday afternoon. This kind of dog shit is far more expected, tempered. The kind that isn’t as divisive as the very idea that some people live differently and look kinda different (which shouldn’t be divisive, but here we are). This is one that St Kilda supporters have taken ownership of over 142 years. It’s not race or culture politics in the widest sense, but still in a special way it forms a massive part of who we are.

On paper this was a match between two teams of inconsistency in 2015. Port has worn the tag in a higher class though, being the competition’s great disappointment. However, they still have a much higher ceiling than a number of opponents (especially us). This looks suspiciously like a Geelong 2006. Application aside, Polec probably robbed them of more movement that we gave him credit for and Paddy Ryder looks more like an asset that needs proper adjusting to rather than an instant booster. The way the game panned out, in isolation, would tell you what last year’s meeting said about both teams. One a youthful and exciting challenger, the other youthful and barely finding their feet.

The St Kilda social media team ripped up this marginally terrifying pop culture reference following last week’s Billy Longer star turn, although should Billy have a successful career in a – dare I say it – successful team that photo could by proxy become an iconic one for St Kilda supporters. Like most weeks, I’d have to say that after today I’m no closer to feeling confident one or way or the other.

Geary was the captain in Riewoldt’s absence, and this year hasn’t solved any questions about where he really sits in the side. Nathan Wright was listed on the extended bench, D-Mac came in and there’s still Acres, Saunders and Murdoch hanging around in be VFL. Now, obviously they’re not all the same type of player but you’d like to think anyone vaguely playing Geary’s role, or elements of them, would be a little more dynamic than he is. I know he’s incredibly respected by the everyone inside the club but it became quickly apparent that when it comes to who is naturally drawn to potential captains the contribution you make on the field can’t be ignored.

Whilst he got some “good” i.e. “relatively high” numbers (23 disposals was second behind only Joey for us) he offered the game some ripper clangers for someone supposedly meant to uphold the higher standards and set an example. His kick along the ground (unforced) at the back of the centre square as we were working to rebound turned into a cheap Port goal and highlighted just what kind of a clown he can be with the ball in hand.

Port’s good movement and our lack thereof mad us look incredibly confused at times. Whilst it’s the done thing obviously to rotate your direct opponent this was hamster wheel stuff and was obviously working in Port’s favour. Never should Jarryn Geary be having to take a one on one Schulz – Goddard was trailing by a metre to make the extra man completely useless – let alone Westhoff shortly following. Moments after those contests Schulz had found another undersized opponent in Sav and then Westhoff was magically with Roberton.

The pressure was thereabouts but needed to be wiser. Sav and Roberton left but both of their men on the wing when it looked like Port were about to be trapped, but they easily opened it up for them and Moore ended up with a shot on goal.

Josh Bruce comically kept his goal-in-every-game record for 2015 in tact after a lovely set shot after the siren. It was probably the most nervously he’d looked all season, particularly given his performance itself could be described as comical.

His work in contests was more Billy Longer than Josh Bruce this year, and whilst the ball use was absolute slop he often found himself nowhere near the drop of the ball, otherwise the ball would be hurtling through his hands when he did. A great contested mark in the third quarter was rewarded with a behind from what has been a forte of his this year – the left-foot banana set shot from the pocket. Suffice to say he didn’t really have any fortes coming into this season, let alone having that good a year that we’re getting that specific.

His worst game for the year peaked clearly with the mark and goal, but it was summed up best by Paddy’s first cracking of the shits. We were privileged enough to witness Hugh’s the other week, but his was more of “the first of many, awwww”. Paddy’s said as much about his own leadership and application (even at this early stage) as it did how badly Josh was playing. Paddy had set himself for the fall of another woeful forward-50 entry and Josh just casually walked into his path, which is something I still expect Josh Bruce to more likely of doing rather than playing quality Australian Rules football. Like, he just literally walked into his way.

Paddy registered some low numbers but he took a couple of really good, strong marks and was unlucky to not return better than 2.0. For a guy who looks like he’s had minus-one pre-seasons he moves very well, whether it’s to work off his man and get to the fall of the ball or work up the ground. Not sure still where Membrey fits into this forward line at this early stage in all their careers – let the record show that going into this game we Paddy (four games), Bruce, Membrey and Hickey as our tall forwards to go with Sinclair and Eli as the smalls – but with Riewoldt coming back in I just can’t take Paddy out. Membrey would be hard done by after coming in for a quarter of the worst team game for three months, and Hickey unfortunately might need to rely on Billy to have been hit hard enough that he takes a rest next week. He might be firming a little as trade bait but I hope not. More Quick 60 please.

Whilst you couldn’t fault the small forwards for the entry, they were absolutely nowhere near it when the ball hit the deck. Eli’s game, like his hair, is now devoid of flash and DARE® Iced Coffee. No speed, no presence; I’m not actually sure what he does. Surely Lonie comes straight back in. Sinclair had good moments and Mav was really good again (despite missing the sitter after the solo effort), but going on this performance the forward line is infinitely more lively with Lonie and Billings in their (the latter obviously won’t be until next year).

Joey chipped in with a couple of goals and what should have been a third from a relatively easy set shot. This year he seems to have a lot more nous in his positioning in the forward line, and in the process might extend his career by a year or two if he maintains it. The thing is, we’re going to need him in the middle a lot more over the next couple of years if we don’t recruit or draft a decent mid, which we’re going to have to do anyway whether it’s the road to 2018 or 2050.

Because it wasn’t necessarily that we got smashed out of the middle. The two teams split the inside-50’s 52-apiece, it was that the quality of the ball use was far better than the current ladder placing going in the match suggested, and we demonstrated an irresistible combination of being out-pressured and driven to hurried disposal by Port when we had the ball and shanking our kicks when we were on our own anyway.

It was looking dangerous from the start. Big names Ryder, Wingard and Westhoff all had shots early, and Sinclair and Dunstan were using their time and space in our forward 50 to miss.

The midfield “battle” looked like it might have been evened up a little when Wines went off with his shoulder out but the Power had us covered for intent and talent anyway. Apart from Paddy’s workrate there was little to get excited about in the first quarter asides from so good work by Hickey low and Billy working really hard to get his hand to a Schulz kick on the goal line.

In another year of not a massive amount of individual highlights (granted, there’s been far more this year than the last two combined) Mav staked his claim for point of the year both commendably and infuriatingly. I’m referring to the aforementioned effort in which his endeavour, as we’ve come to expect, couldn’t be questioned but he managed to kick from the 15 metres out across the entirety of the open goalmouth.

It was the start of an incredibly frustrating quarter which netted 2.6 whilst the Power kicked 4.0 from half as many scoring shots. Highlights included Armo’s weird attempt at drawing the opposition at the back of the centre square to handball of the top and Neade ran off with it for a goal, and then Roberton’s to ridiculous short kicks to the respective pockets out of the goalsquare with an already-trademark Hugh Goddard one-two as an interlude. The second kick simply went out of bounds to finish off the big contested intercept mark Hugh took at full-back in the first place.

Bruce by this point had been suspiciously quiet and when he finally pushed up into the middle and found space he took the mark, turned around and his kick – which we can only assume was meant for Paddy – ended up near zero humans and out of bounds. Paddy eventually got onto the end of one on the opposite side and took a great mark with his opponent right on him, but he missed.

It was apparent that for yet another week our strategy going into attack seemed to be to just drop the ball from on high onto a bunch of people vaguely near goal. One contest featured all of Bruce, McCartin and Hickey, which would tell there aren’t many big guys leading into any space – or any space any of them to lead into to begin with, take your pick – and of all people Hickey took the grab (he missed the goal). Later in the term Armo had the footy going forward and established that an Eli one-on-one short and 45 metres out was the best option. Whichever way you look at it there’s something wrong with that scenario, and so it was for the entire day.

The half – and probably the day – was summed up around this point when Roberton left his man one-on-one 20 metres out to knock forward the footy to Dunstan who was closing in on the contest. Roberton got to the ball OK but didn’t bother with the shepherd, and Dunstan only needed to be a little untidy before he was swamped by the Power and White snapped a goal. Fair to say it wasn’t Roberton’s best quarter, and we can only hope we can say it’s his worst from here because he’s done some good things year. But fark he looks casual doing anything.

This was quickly followed Weller literally handballing it straight to a Port player after getting the ball from Newnes, and Newnes should have kicked it forward as it was.

It’s probably fair to say the only guys that played a consistently good game was Sean Dempster. Easy to malign him over the last couple of years when our defence was constantly being deserted by the mids and he was forced to play one-on-one on key forwards who had decent delivery on tap, but he’s done so much right this year. Yesterday he had to do it all and held up his end; whether close to Port’s goal or pressing up to help out he effected spoils, took some strong marks and his made some invaluable contested efforts on the whole.

We know far too well that it’s inevitable we’re going to get days like this. The more remarkable days in these times are almost always punctuated by a kid or few playing a game that gives us optimism when going to footy is an exercise in nothing much beyond pessimism.

But some days those kids just aren’t going to fire a shot, and we’re left with a game that after time we will barely remember. You can’t pre-empt those but in hindsight you wonder if they were worth it at all. Even drilling down to mundane you try and think of something – a good hit-out against an exciting team, a chance for Paddy, Hugh et al to experience travel, and so on – that makes it feel like it was worth it. We won’t really know that either for a long time.

They’re flying high

ST KILDA          1.2  6.4  10.5   12.6    (78)
WEST COAST   7.3  8.4   15.6  20.11  (131)

May 23, 2015

Official crowd: 23,598 at Etihad Stadium

pizza dog in field

Strangely, this game was somewhat dubbed as a test of how legit the 2015 West Coast Eagles are. They headed into the game 6-1 (sitting 2nd on the ladder), yet no one sincerely believed that that position was befitting. And after Saturday I think the jury is still out.

The Saints came out a little flat and duly the Eagles took out the driver. Natanui was routinely palming it down to the likes of Shuey and Priddis, and they had 3 goals on the board before the last chords of Long Way To The Top had fully rung out. St Kilda struggled to stem the bleeding from there and like the Bulldogs game the scoreboard ticked over pretty freely. The margin ballooned to 37 points in the second quarter.

I’ve really been a big fan of what the coaching staff has instilled into this group so far this year. From the boldness of the ball the movement; the willingness to continue to play guys when they perform regardless of age/pedigree; the spirit; the courage to stick to the game plan regardless of the scoreboard. But one thing that hasn’t been remedied, and which has been a continual thorn in the side’s side is centre clearances. The Blues, the pies and now the Eagles too have really owned us there.

And it was the ascendancy that the Eagles gained territorially, predominantly through their stoppage expertise, that set up that first quarter blowout. Giving a team a head start like that seemed to be have been one of the vast improvements that the side had made over what was delivered in 2014, but on Saturday it came back to the haunt them. As much as modern footy allows for major momentum swings, a team that is still learning to crawl like the Saints just can’t let a team come into their concrete dome and have a few free hits.

That spirit that I mentioned earlier was still there. By the bucket. And deservedly the Saints stormed back into the contest in the second quarter. A 37 point quarter time margin was shrunk down to 12 at the main break and the home crowd needed no extra prompt to MAKE SOME NOISE. The young saints didn’t back down in the premiership third quarter going goal-for-goal with Adam Simpson’s men. The margin was pegged back to 7 on two occasions but the Eagles always had an answer. And disappointingly the answers were dealt back at the Saints too easily.

Sadly, the Saints couldn’t keep up the intensity, and Josh Hill’s running goal from 50 was a nail in the coffin at the 30 minute mark. That was just one of his 4 for the afternoon, and funnily enough his second in the dying seconds of a quarter for the game – he converted from Steven’s shocking cross-field turnover in the first term.

As much as I’m glowing about the prospects of some of our budding talent, and I’m proud of the brand that the coaching team has engineered us to play, the if, buts and maybes of this year are piling up quite quickly.

The Blues game (like last year’s Wellington fixture vs the Lions) was dying for someone to take control of it. Our better players couldn’t rise to the occasion. In the Essendon game we had clear cut chances (see Schneider) to get over the line in a game we utterly deserved to win, but didn’t take them. And who could forget round one? We ran all over the top of the Giants, only to squander an array of opportunities in front of goal.

Round 7 in Adelaide and the Eagles game I kind of file in the same basket: both games we rattled the opposition for significant periods, and showed we could score enough, only to be undone by some terrible unforced errors and general inconsistency in regards to hardness around the ball and pressure. Those two were more palatable though in that there was a tangible gap in class there that felt irreversible once we had key players go down in each of the two games (or prior in the case of Geary and Joey before the Crows game).

Richo hasn’t been too vocal about it so far (though he did underline it I think after the Crows game) but, we need more out of the second/third tier of midfielders. The Dunstans, the Newnes, the Wellers, the Billings – they’re just not giving us enough right now. (Granted, Newnes was predominantly in the back half versus the Eagles because of our lack of height with Delaney out). Not necessarily in terms of disposals, but just in their consistency of effort, pressure and disposal through 120 minutes. So far, that has been well overshadowed by the staggeringly awesome consistency of Jack Steven and David Armitage; both are well overdue a sub-par performance. Armo had a relatively subdued game on Saturday but willed himself into the game. He didn’t have the same impact, or dynamism as we’ve seen so far this year, but he still ended up amassing 30-something touches. That’s the kind of year he’s having: a subdued game but still prolific.

Worryingly, it’s completely unreasonable to think that both Steven and Armo will keep ticking over at this rate on a weekly basis. Fortunately, on Saturday there was a third musketeer that appeared: Leigh Montagna.

He was awesome. He was one of the main catalysts in getting the Saints back into the game in the second term, with his clean hands in close and the link-up play that he ignited on the outside. A fit and firing Montagna, obviously still has a lot to give, and in turn the Eagles tagged him in the second half (he only managed a dozen or so possessions after half time). Joey was one of the main reasons that our more “outside” types like Billings, Sinclair and so on, got into the game in the second term – the Scotch College BFFs both had 8 telling touches for that term after being near anonymous in the opening stanza.

Montagna isn’t really one to get on the highlights reel and granted, he doesn’t get anywhere near the acclaim or the coverage that he deserves in this blog. No longer is he a guy who seems quick, yet he does have the ability to drive the team forward. He also demonstrates the effectiveness of just being clean around the packs; which is something that our younger brigade are obviously still trying to grasp. Fingers crossed he can keep fit for the remainder of the year because his best is still very good and like I said, he does have the ability to bring others into the game with his ball use.

Aside from Joey, Sinclair, Savage, Billings and Weller all were key in the fightback. The tackling of the team overall was stellar – I later found out via the Aaron Hammill post-game Facebook Q&A that our tackling efficiency was 90% in that second term. Phwoar! That sounds much better than what I reckon we got at.

Just on Shane Savage: I texted @Tom_Briglia my list of guys who I thought were on ‘Last Chance Island’ prior to the game and Sav was one of them. Credit to him, Saturday was a solid performance from him; he seemed to have regained some zest and verve, and also put in some strong defensive spoils against guys who looked like mountains next to him. Unfortunately, he’s still prone to the odd brain fade and yesterday he made a real standout clanger: He was dashing into the back of the centre square and for some reason handballed to a statue-like Newnes who had an Eagle already on his hammer. Newnes got crunched and bang – turnover. Now, I know it’s somehwat futile to single out mistakes like this (we had 51 clangers for crying out loud) but this was the type of instance that isn’t an abberation for him and it’s also arguably symptomatic of the Saints afternoon.

Jack Newnes reminds me of Jason Gram in some ways. He can kick the ball a long way, and from time to time looks very good doing so, but give him a bucket of 10 balls and he’s going to absolutely butcher 3 or 4. That’s not the type of reliability that’s needed in the modern AFL. You need to be consistently precise.

Conversely, it was Newnes’ spearing drop punt that got us our first major of the afternoon.

*****

Anyone who has talked Saints with me over the last 18 months knows that I’m a big Hickey fan; love gettin’ Hickey with it. His Saturday performance was perhaps his least best since being injected into the lineup this year and it had me questioning the longevity of him being a forward/ruck, instead of a ruck/forward. His workrate and his ability to compete at ground level can’t be questioned; some of his pickups around his knees are totally sweet. My skepticism about this setup though is: how effective can it be if Hickey doesn’t mark well? Such is the Saints still feeble midfield, that we really need to maximize our opportunities and so it can only be so deflating on the rest of the team when they see Hickey get into space and then squander relatively easy marking opportunities.

Was our loss this week somewhat initiated at selection committee on Thursday? Was selection committee really off this week? Richo: you-you-YOU-YOU oughta’ know that Kennedy gives us trouble at the best of times let alone when our number one lock-down defender is out, the Eagles tails are up and when Sam Fisher’s hamstrings are involved. We hear that ‘s’ word – structure – all the time in footy; wasn’t it a departure from our structure to not replace Keys Delaney with another key backman?

It’s curious.

The other frustrating aspect to this was that once Fisher left the field with a hammy (late in the third quarter) – at which point Blake Acres had already shed the subs vest in place of a concussed Jimmy Webster – it meant that the extra run we would’ve benefited from having played with one less ‘tall’ was well and truly nullified. So on that note, it was pretty unsurprising that the Eagles ending up streaking away and padding out the margin in the last term by kicking the last four goals.

******

Let me say this: I try and dedicate as few column inches as possible to umpiring. To this day, after going to footy games for a good 23 years, I’m yet to come away from a game thinking the umpires were the determining factor. That said, I will permit myself to speak of the umpiring in regards to the Saints this one time. They stunk; they stunk up the game. And the Eagles definitely got the rub of the green. I ended up with a scratchy voice to boot – though, this was compounded by me already having had a virus that I had yet to fully shake off. Holding the ball will always be the most contentious rule to be umpired but the umpires were horrendous in their interpretation of it on Saturday. Far too many times Eagles players of all shapes and sizes were able to squander prior opportunity, get tackled, only for the umpire to stand by and then let them drop the ball out after 10 seconds. The amount of times their midfielders were able to incorrectly dispose of the ball was laughable. Further, I’ve no idea how the umpire did not report Elliott Yeo in the second term for whacking Jimmy Webster with a fist to the face in an attempt to spoil the ball. If I’m not mistaken the umpire was no more than 15 meters away, and yet did not even pay a 50 metre penalty. The mind boggles even now.

Despite that rant, I’m still yet to think that the umpires are the determining factor in a game. But they sucked. Let that be on the record.

Speaking of things that sucked: the Match Day Experience. Okay, hold on; that’s a bit harsh. It was OK, but it definitely needs a re-think if they are to continue with it. Firstly, I get that the main aim is to just keep people “more engaged”, but I don’t know how “crossing” to Saints match day experience staff around the stadium (out on the concourse and foot bridge etc) is exactly enhancing the experience? Ditto, showing the crowd how to take a selfie in the stands. Those aspects are ignorable I suppose, but what’s not is the glaring, animated, electronic signage that is draped across all the boundary line and level two signs. It’s awfully garish and way too distracting. That has to be rectified somehow.

I don’t mind Long Way To The Top being blasted out just prior to us entering the field – it gets the blood pumping – but having bag-pipe players out on the ground, replete in traditional Scottish get up, seemingly playing along just seems utterly superfluous and silly. They might be the world’s greatest bag-pipe players (I’m sure they’re great) but you’d never know when the PA is pumping out Angus Young and co.

There’s more to be said on the match day experience but this isn’t the time.

*****

We’ve now endured 8 games of the season, and I think we’ve stumbled upon a stage in the year where we can see definitively see some patterns and common themes amongst what the Saints have dished up to date; both in terms of individuals and the team as a whole.

As I mentioned earlier, centre clearances have been an issue. It seems like structurally, as well as from an effort standpoint, that we’re flimsy there. Dane Swan swanned his way through about 8 centre clearances against us at the G’. Part of it has to lie with Billy Longer’s ruck work too; the whole group in there has to iron out the issues because it’s leaving our defence utterly exposed for big periods of games.

Ball use under pressure is another pressure point for us. Coming into round 8 we were averaging the most clangers per game (over 52 per game) – but it’s not just turnovers so much as our ability to be clean with our hands under distinct pressure. In the early stages of Saturday’s game this again was evident; the Crows were pretty exemplary in this area – being able to be clean and whisk the ball away from congestion. Part of the ball use issue of course, is personnel: when you side contains guys such as Shenton, Dempster, Geary, Steven, Newnes, Armitage (I’m sure I’m missing a few too), then you’re asking for trouble in this department. Steven’s kick straight to Josh Hill in the last minute of the first quarter on Saturday was another glaring example of how our skills just haven’t been consistent enough against decent pressure/opposition this year. Of course, it can happen to highly skilled players too – remember Billings’ and Lonie’s similar gifts to Carlton in Wellington?

In terms of individuals I think there are a few that are on particularly thin ice now that the likes of Roo, Geary, and Lonie are on the verge of returning. Schneider’s output has been so-so in the midfield and his lack of finesse isn’t helping. Roberton’s year has been solid, but I don’t think the side gets enough out of him unless he’s specifically playing as an all-out attacking loose man in defence. I wouldn’t mind betting that Dunstan is at least given a rest soon given that Seb Ross is back at Sandy. Dunstan has been pretty consistent this year, but he seems to lack some of the explosiveness he displayed last year. Hence, he’s getting caught with the ball on a weekly basis. To his point Membrey has shown that he’s not as ready-made as we may have wished. As a third-option up forward he just doesn’t break clear of his man consistently enough – the best players in the competition at that role are much more capable at covering the ground.

Such is the nature of young teams, we get hurried into think that these things can or should get amended rapidly. It’s like once the team shows flashes of vast improvement people expect that to flow on like a steady current. But young teams can be unpredictable and of course, inconsistent. That doesn’t make days like Saturday anymore bearable, mind. And I’ve still got a bung voice.