Back on the level

By Tom Briglia

Round 8, 2012
West Coast Eagles 6.2,  13.6,  15.7,  18.13 (121)
St Kilda 1.4,  5.5,  11.10,  13.13 (91)
Crowd: 38,174 at Patersons Stadium, Sunday, May 20th at 2.40pm WST

After a heady week we all came back to earth on Sunday evening.

Our plummet back to the level was a free-fall throughout the first half, but the parachute opened up in the second half and the landing was softened a little. But we fell either way.

It was a long way to fall quickly, too. The general public’s perception of the club and its prospects were turned on its head last Monday when the trio of small forwards in Milne, Milera and Saad lit up the Concrete Dome. A poll on The Age online had St Kilda as the public’s choice of premier at one stage with 22% of the vote. Polls like that, let alone on the The Age‘s online version, only mean so much (i.e. nothing) but it did say something of the changed sentiment towards the club and its style of play – albeit for two hours this season – and the jaded, tarnished side that was taking the field in 2011.

West Coast in Perth after a six day break was going to be a tougher assignment than Carlton, even though both opponents would be playing for top spot in the respective games. The reason why the Saints lost, however, ultimately had more to do with a lack of energy and wasted opportunities in the first half rather than fixturing.

Birthday celebrations meant a late start to the day and getting to the parents’ house in Ormond right for the bounce of the ball. On the train there I’d learnt Priddis would be a late withdrawal, but by the time I was on the train back to Brunswick Scott Selwood, Waters, Rosa, Gaff, Shuey and Masten would have created more than enough headaches in his place.

No one was off to a good start, really. St Kilda’s clearance from the opening bounce aside – begun with a lovely tap from Big Rhys over Nic Nat; and the play was described as “technically perfect” by Gerard Healy – Saad could have really got things off to a flyer but fluffed the chance on the run, and for the next few minutes the Saints did everything they could to abuse their monopoly on possession in perfect conditions. Roo and Terry were no exception on the way to My Favourite Hair in the AFL kicking the opening goal, and Jack Steven missed a good chance on the run. The Eagles were slow to react and looked like a team coming off a big loss, and whoever was operating the camera was also faffin’ about for the first quarter and a bit, with up close and personal views of the players not seen since the St Kilda schoolgirl saga – it was all footballers and not much footy.

Eventually Shuey kicked a lovely long set-shot goal against the run of play and already you could sense that the Saints were going to pay for not taking their opportunities.

It didn’t take long from that point for West Coast’s press to settle and for the order of season 2012 thus far to be restored.

The home side picked apart the Saints simply by working harder with and without the ball. Similarly to Hawthorn two weeks prior the Eagles ran into space and picked apart St Kilda going forward with precise shorter kicking, before utilising the talls in Big Cox and Nic Nat with high balls forward. Like Franklin’s monstering of a competitive but terminally undersized Dempster, so too did Simpkin struggle with Cox and Dempster found himself in familiar territory on a few occasions.

Both of the Eagles’ rucks were giving the Saints grief early, and things were only going to get worse when Big Rhys hurt his hammy trying to beat Nic Nat to the ball. He had won the first three hitouts from centre bounces against Nic Nat to keep the Saints somewhat competitive in the air but a sloppy defensive effort up forward gifted Nic Nat his first goal.

It was up to Kosi and Blake to take care of things from that point. Blake tried as he always does but at 189cm was going to suffer like Head and Dempster up forward, and Kosi was having a shocker. The Last Man to Have Captained the Saints to a Premiership of Any Kind gave away four free kicks – a few in front of goal – and looked far from the dangerous Kosi that’s been roaming around this season.

Fellow tall(ish) Wilkes was thrown into the backline where it’s been demonstrated at both AFL and VFL level this season (and in the WAFL last year) he doesn’t play his best footy. Yesterday evening he didn’t any good footy when he was up forward, spilling an easy mark early, and it was only going to be downhill from there. Sloppy disposal from half-back and two free kicks against led to several West Coast goals: that sums up his return to Corporate Name Stadium. With Stanley set to miss next week and Archer on the rookie list, an extra tall up might be required up forward with Kosi rucking, but the probable return of both Fisher and Gwilt may squeeze him out of the side.

As far as injuries go the early rumour that Beau Waters might have hurt his hamstring before the bounce – after Priddis had been a late withdrawal – had the opposite effect on the Eagles to that of Stanley’s. He kicked two goals and collected 27 possessions, including 10 touches in the first term to establish the Eagles’ dominance a handsome set shot goal on a tight angle right before the quarter time siren as the commentators announced Stanley had been subbed off to really make a mockery of St Kilda’s situation.

Though last Monday was a night for the smalls – Big Rhys would have to wait until the final term to be the only tall to really have an impact on the game – the mosquito fleet on this occasion were nowhere near it in the first half to pick up the slack. Saad and Steven’s misses began proceedings, with Milne not picking out Milera’s short pass to him well within range for no particular reason.

The trend continued in the second quarter with one passage close to goal making Saad, Milne and Steven look well out their depth and varying levels of silly (Milne the winner of that one), which was followed up by the Tiprat kicking straight to a West Coast defender inside 50.

Even passages of play that ended with goals were comical, with Roo having to run on to his own stifled kick to get things going for the Saints in the term. His second goal for the quarter was a truly needed captain’s goal, but it was answered immediately at the other end by the Big Q-stick who needed only a dinky kick after all of St Kilda’s hard work to get one back for the Eagles. Roo finished the term appropriately, hitting the post from close range after the siren.

Fortunately my large marinara pizza from Remezzo (plug) arrived at half-time to make me feel better about things. The high of last week’s blistering performance was looking well and truly like the anomaly as opposed to the “every time” that Swat talked about during the week. When teams give you such a rollercoaster ride from one week to the next any and all comfort food is welcome on days like that.

In the half-time break the players seemed like they’d gotten the appropriate kicking they deserved. Swat said afterwards all that had changed was the forward structure which raises the question of why they weren’t doing that in the first place, but the attack on the ball and the contest all around the ground had lifted. If the attack isn’t there you can have any forward structure in place and you won’t get very far.

As just some guy it’s easy for me to say “Oh yeah, do that again next week” but a) I’m not on the coaching panel and don’t know the intimate ins and outs of the players, and b) the players came out and performed like a totally different side so it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what those changes were. Overall, the visitors looked much more like Monday’s team that relied on defensive pressure and pace going into attack to catch the opposition off guard. There was certainly more emphasis on the smalls up forward as Saad, Milera, Steven, Cripps and Armo all kicked goals and made the side far less predictable. Again, that’s easier to do when hard work is being done further up the ground too and space to work with in attack.

Despite the exciting third quarter, Saad and Milera simply weren’t as effective this week. I wasn’t really expecting a repeat of last week because it’s rare for younger and inexperienced players to consistently give a high output, but both were quieter in general play too, not just on the scoreboard. Milera continued to push up the ground and work hard for possessions but he just wasn’t finding it so much, whilst Saad was cited all too infrequently despite another brilliant solo effort goal that got the side up and about. Combined with Milne the trio managed just three goals between them (one each) as opposed to last week’s nine.

Cripps is an interesting one. Even with the more regular game time he still seems to be most effective as a small forward. He’s not necessarily as creative as Milne, Milera or Saad can be but he puts himself in the right spaces. Perhaps he’ll follow a similar trajectory to Jack, who started off nearly exclusively as a small forward before growing into roles further up the field. Last night in just 55% of time on the ground he kicked two goals from twelve touches and he seems more comfortable up there for now.

Jack really got involved in the third term as the midfielders around him lifted. Lenny was incredible and displayed again why he is the spiritual leader at the club: a consistent four quarter effort and he was throwing himself into the play right until the end of the match. It’s both inspiring and a shame that he is so vital to this team. He’s not going to be around forever and there may be a period of time until the next generation start to hit 50 games or so that a player like him will be sorely missed.

For last night he was given a lot of help by Joey, who played probably his best game of the season and was a real spark in that third term. Dal was busy enough with 23 touches but Joey had more of an impact on the game and was more purposeful with his possessions.

Ultimately the first half damage was too much. Of all people it was Schofield that took an important mark late in the third term to give breathing space to the Eagles; he went back and kicked the goal from the same spot that Roo has missed from on half-time. There was no margin for error in the final quarter and a long arm wrestle was finished by Shuey who widened the gap enough for St Kilda to have to take too many risks and by then the task was too much for their legs anyway. Fittingly, Nic Nat really finished it off after Wilkes got into his back close to goal.

So again the problem was consistency. Much like the Hawthorn and Port Adelaide games the team only turned up for some of the four quarters, and much like the Fremantle game wasted opportunities up forward would be costly. We can be pleased with second half effort, but there is so much frustration in watching the team swing between effective, entertaining footy and sloppy execution and general switching off psychologically.

Fisher and Gwilt should return next week which will hopefully shore up things in the backline. Jimmy’s been out for 10 months so might take some weeks to settle back in but Fisher will be a welcome return. Gram wasn’t too bad at all and will keep his spot after looking a bit shaky in the past few weeks; he consistently finds the footy a lot he is a great slicer of the thing. Stanley will surely miss and so perhaps its Wilkes to make way, unless the selectors want to give Simpkin a rest (you’d certainly keep him in on form). Schneider played for Sandy yesterday but I’m not sure if they’ll bring him in so soon, whilst Raph put in another good VFL performance and could be in the selectors’ minds. Ledger and Ross were named in the best but it’s nearly impossible to take someone out for them; perhaps Geary or Ray if you’re feeling particularly harsh.

Another week, another test. This time it will be Sydney at the Concrete Dome on Saturday afternoon who were all over the lackluster Demons on the weekend. On paper it’s hard to think that the team in fourth place on ladder will drop their third match in four weeks after coming off a 101-point win, and a second six-day break may genuinely effect the Saints. For all of last week’s riding high, this journey might only just be starting. As always, we’ll have a better idea next week.

  • Richard Lee

    The side has had a freewheeling aspect that we haven’t seen in a Saints team on years, so the return of Fish and Gwilt would be a perfect tonic to temper that a little bit. Not to mention the fact that any player that’s even slightly tall is a big plus for the defence right now.

    Hopefully the fact that the boys are in the comfy surrounds of The Dome on a Saturday night takes the edge off the second consecutive six day break.

  • Tom Briglia

    Having Fisher and Gwilt will no doubt be a plus, although Gwilt may some time to get back to his better form.

    The depleted defence couldn’t have come up against a more imposing forward line in terms of size on the weekend. Sydney don’t have a Cox/Nic Nat duo – no one really does – but having at least one of those two defenders returning will bring some size stability.