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.