Great win/Mention Eli Templeton

By Tom Briglia

Round 2, 2014
St Kilda 5,0, 8.1, 12.4, 15.5 (95)
GWS Giants 4.2, 9.3, 11.5, 13.10 (88)
Crowd: 19,640 at Etihad Stadium, Saturday, March 29th at 1.40pm

In 1924 the Public Service Football Club was formed and proposed admission to an expanding VFL.

It was an attractive proposition for the VFL, who was in a long-running tussle with the VFA and had to also contend with the threat from rugby and the “British Association” code (football/soccer). The VFL was looking to expand its number of clubs from nine to at least 10 (in part to eliminate the bye), as well as carry out a huge powerplay against all three foes by taking control of what would become the Olympic Park site, the Amateur Sports Ground, previously known as the Motordome (motor races were also held there). What made the Public Service Football Club a convenient addition to the League was that it was backed by Melbourne Carnivals Pty Ltd, which had the rights the site. Plans were made for a 100,000-capacity stadium on the site which Public Service would play out of, but the stadium itself would also allow the League to have its own major stadium and not be held at the whim of the MCC just over the railway line.

The idea of the League’s own stadium would eventually bear some sort of fruit in the form of Waverley, which was initially planned to be a 157,000-capacity stadium (some say 140,000 and others 166,000) and to host all Grand Finals from the time the ground’s planned redevelopment was completed around the mid-1980s. However, the MCC would remain a bugbear to the VFL – the State Government refused to approve the plans to extend the Members’ stand all the way around the stadium as it had interests in the MCG and didn’t want to threaten its hold on the biggest day of the footy caldendar.

Meanwhile, the Public Service Football Club never made it out onto the ground. They eventually withdrew their VFL application late in 1924 and were provisionally accepted into the VFA before Melbourne Carnivals backed out, and they disbanded. The VFL had cooled on the idea of admitting the chess piece, too, eventually showing it had learned the lesson of non-district club University’s failed admission 16 years previous and opted for three district clubs – Footscray, Hawthorn, and North Melbourne, who narrowly edged out Prahran. In another display of strength by the League over its Association counterpart, the VFL obtained State Government permission to take on North Melbourne into its ranks, and take away the VFA’s most central ground in Arden Street – a move the Government had thwarted in 1921. The League had effectively opted for one chess piece over another, but chose the one that actually stood for something.

One of the obvious questions to come from the Public Service proposal was that, being a non-district team like University, where would their supporters have come from? It’s a question worth asking particularly considering their home ground could fit 100,000, and was one that was posed at the time. Who exactly would they be representing? I don’t think public servants already supporting a club would drop everything and suddenly jump on the [Insert club nickname here]. Those involved involved with the club were certainly confident of “ample” support. Although not a huge focus at the time, the branding would obviously be difficult – University, still the only non-district club to have competed at the highest level, were referred to by the organic but rather dry nicknames of “The Professors”, “The Students” and “The Shop”. Not sure how the Public Service would have gone with that. What about their colours? What about their song? If they managed to survive the Depression and then World War II, surely the idea of a profession-based team would seem outdated and untenable in the long run anyway. Most probably they would have morphed into a very central Melbourne team or shipped out to an outer growth corridor with a generic name, perhaps similar to that of “Melbourne City Football Club” in the VFA. Or “Greater Western Sydney”.

Whilst the VFL would eventually see off the VFA threat, effectively killing off the competition and its clubs’ identities and then swallowing it to the point where it’s now, indeed, called the VFL, the code wars involving Rugby League and Association Football never quite went away. The now AFL still had (and has) large untapped markets in Queensland and NSW to capture – i.e. Rugby strongholds that needed to be tempered, and growing Assocation following that needed to be thwarted. New chess pieces were required. A presence on the Gold Coast had been established with the Brisbane Bears from the late 1980s, and so the idea and formation of a Gold Coast-based team to take on the NRL’s Titans and Queensland’s strong Association popularity was a long time coming (and for a while was simply dependent on when North Melbourne made up their minds as to whether they wanted to be shipped up there or not).

“Greater Western Sydney” was likewise created out of nothing to give the AFL a slow-burning powerplay against the NRL and FFA in potentially the most lucrative of those untapped markets; a region that is almost a city in its own right with a growing population that is currently over 1.6 million. The Association presence there is growing, and it includes NRL giants (so to speak) Penrith Panthers, as well as West Tigers. Unlike those that talked up the Public Service Football Club proposal, the AFL has publicly been very conservative in talking up the fanbase prospects of both GWS and Gold Coast for the short term. In an attempt to fast track the building of support for both teams, the AFL gave them every draft concession possible over the last several years. When GWS beat the Swans in Round One, it announced the biggest step the young “club” had taken on its way to becoming an on-field juggernaut.

For now the question remains – who are the GWS players playing for? Who would support them? With branding a huge necessity, GWS for now is more a brand than an organically-created football club playing for its loyal members. It’s Brand AFL, a collection of the best talent possible assembled to showcase the game for potential fans in Sydney’s West. Their colours were officially chosen to represent the sunset of the Blue Mountains – a nice sentiment but more likely orange was chosen because it’s on-trend and unique to the league. The name “Giants” was chosen over four others (Stallions, Pride, Wolves, Rangers) most probably because for impatient sports fans who don’t have too much time for sport but are apparently what the AFL will drop everything for, “GWS Giants” is more fun to say because of the alliteration.

As for Saturday afternoon, the players were (apparently) playing for the 20 fans behind the Coventry end goals wearing orange novelty wigs and orange novelty robes. Which was strange, because the GWS Twitter account had posted a picture of some of the cheer squad looking rather respectable before the game. Obviously they have some backroom staff doubling as costume and wardrobe designers.

If there’s one thing GWS got incredibly right it’s the song. It’s probably my favourite in the league – it sounds big, it moves; it sounds like an appropriately ominous anthem for juggernaut team wearing charcoal who, rather than having any visible support, seem more like a monolith standing in the way of everyone else and their dreams. That will be realised when they run out onto the MCG on Grand Final Day in the coming years.

And so it was on Saturday. I was in an incredible rush to get to the game specifically so I could hear the song – I wasn’t able to go to the 2012 meeting at Corporate Name Stadium (the day we wore the newspaper/”Thank You” jumper, and should have won by a club record margin) so this was my first time hearing it in person, apart from the hundreds of times I’ve played it in my room. It was everything I wanted it to be.

You wouldn’t know too many more people were excited to them run out and play at all. Great goals and dramatic goals that threatened the Saints throughout the match were met either with audible exasperation from the St Kilda members’ wing, or, such as Giles’ fourth goal in the last, stunned silence barely overcome by a brief whisper at the away end once the umpire signals a goal.

On the field, where the actual stuff happened however, this game was a really good tussle between what seemed two evenly matched, youthful teams, only with that weird invisible force of the AFL’s desires backing the Giants throughout. Patton, Cameron, Greene, Scully, Smith, Boyd, Treloar, Coniglio, Ward, Whitfield, Shiel, Davis…they’ll get their way eventually. But they didn’t manage to on Saturday, despite all the hype and confidence spilling over from the shock Round 1 win. Their players’ reaction on the siren was that of a team who had truly built themselves up for a game they thought they were going to win. I’m not an aggressive supporter in any way, but have to admit I felt a strange surge of something as I watched the Giants’ players standing and slumping solemnly after the siren. For the first time GWS actually counted for something as an opponent, and this weird growing monster had been beaten. It had been beaten by a team that had given loyal and long-suffering fans something of their own to look forward to in the coming years.

I’m under no illusions here – I think we’re gonna get our arses handed to us at Subiaco/Corporate Name Stadium on Saturday. Eli, Dunstan, Hickey, et. al. have played pretty well two weeks in a row and I wouldn’t be bullishly expecting these young guys to back it up again so soon, and against opposition like that.

But that’s not the point about this season. 2014 isn’t about 2014. It’s about the years following.

A highlight for all of us was Eli running past My Favourite Hair in the AFL’s spilt ball up against the boundary in the last quarter, taking it on himself to to the 50-metre arc and deliver a perfectly-weighted ball to Dunstan in the square who was closely marked. My brother Matt turned to me in our new level 1, aisle 33 seats and said, “That’s the future right there”. He said it quite facetiously but at the same time was entirely serious – these are the kinds of plays we’re going to be seeing time and time again over the coming years.

So let’s get it out of the way and start with Eli, shall we? I had surgery a few weeks ago for compartment syndrome and shin splints, and when he kicked that goal on the run in the third to bring things back to seven points I jumped up so quickly to celebrate I thought I’d split one of the cuts wide open, and split another that was already open even further. Fortunately there was no excess damage done, so I can retain that memory as a fond, clean one.

Eli only had 11 touches but so many of them were quality. There was the aforementioned goal, taking a mark from a Nathan Wright hook and getting his skates on, and there was what proved to be the match sealer after CJ totally ruined covering Big Tom Hickey in glory, who was about 20 metres closer to goal than where the kick landed. It was more about his composure in a huge moment that was impressive. He started pretty well too, pressuring the much more experienced/incredibly huger Josh Hunt to the boundary line, and there was a great delivery to Roo on the members wing (which ended in Farren’s goal), which he reprised in the third quarter. There was another moment where he had the ball in the same spot where Roo gestured to kick down the line to around the 50-metre arc where there were big number from both sides, but he paused and decided to go to the middle to switch the play and we ended up with a scoring opportunity.

It was probably fair GWS went in favourites. It’s easy to compare them to Gold Coast ad nauseum, so I will. Even though they’re a year behind they look a lot more hardened and wired to play more physically. As slick and increasingly entertaining the Suns are to watch, I think GWS might have a more effective balance going forward and when I think that they’ll be operating a forward line featuring Cameron, Patton and Boyd in it not only do I prefer watching them more even now, but I think judging only on what we’ve seen they’ll be more successful in the long run.

Things started just that way with GWS keeping things difficult in close, forcing a lot of sideways, short or ineffectual kicks and handballs. At the nine-minute mark the scoreboard showed the possession tally at 32-7 the Saints’ way, but within one minute and two GWS kicks scores were level. For much of the quarter they simply looked cleaner and more efficient.

I think the Giants sensed the Saints weren’t handling the attention well. A pleasing moment was Dunstan being unable to be brought down by a couple of opponents in traffic, and when Giles gave Roo a shove after the ball had cleared the boundary it was he and Hickey that came in to have a crack. It took time, but eventually the physical pressure was evenly matched and both as a spectacle and in terms of crowd involvement (read: the 32 people that were there involvement) things hit a new level.

Yes, it’s unbelievable to think now but for a while early in the game it looked as though Beau Maister couldn’t drop a thing, even if the contest involved only him and a teammate. He even got the Bronx cheers first up when he was part of the chain that led to Joey’s first goal. But his disposals were typically awful, and by the time the game was well into the second quarter he was back to spilling all and sundry. I’ve said before he operates as if he comes into each game with the same percentage quota of marks to actually hold on to, regardless of degree of difficulty. I feel like this year he’s really lowered that number. So much so an older person sitting just behind declared that “If Maister is selected again next week, I’m going to write the club an email”. I left it.

So perhaps it was ironic (not sure if that’s the technically correct use of the word) that he was instrumental in the final goal (as was CJ’s royal botching of a right-foot kick – see the reverse angle replay for confirmation he was looking for Hickey closer to goal), creating chaos when he hit the pack, giving CJ the chance to take it away in space. Maister’s work ethic can’t be questioned. He gets to everything, but very few teams would have it good enough a player that gets to everything but can’t hold the mark. Tom Lee hasn’t been showing enough just yet at Sandy to make that second forward position his, and Spencer White isn’t near it yet so we might not really have an option for another week.

Speaking of some bigger maybe or maybe not holding their marks, BIG RHYS BANDWAGON took several really nice contested marks high up around the 50-metre arc, but also comically dropped one when there was a brilliant miscommunication with Maister on the wing in the last quarter. He dropped one or two other gimmes, and missed two set shots at goal from a nearly identical spot. The encouraging thing was, however, was that it looked like for much of the game he’d got his positioning around the ground right and was taking the marks in the right spots. He’ll need to keep it up otherwise he’s going to revert to simply being in the side because he’s tall and quick without the footy. MY FAVOURITE PLAYER Arryn Siposs had an improved performance in the VFL on the weekend but would still be a few very good performances away and perhaps injury before looking like playing.

So it  was left to Hickey as the second big man to make their presence felt up forward. It was the best game of St Kilda’s Own Stephen Merchant‘s career – three goals, 19 possessions, and telling aerial contest at both ends of the ground, finishing with eight marks. A number of people on forums (lol) and in the media (also lol sometimes) have questioned why the Saints let Big Ben go, but as Roo said last night on AFL 360 Hickey has played his two best games in the past two weeks and certainly on Saturday had a profound impact on the outcome of the game. He was made The Post-Match Interview Guy for the Week and noted that he set himself to use his athleticism to exert his influence in the one-on-one contest throughout the game, with Mumford’s huge frame meanwhile allowing him a comfortable 46-20 in the hit-outs.

Hickey’s follow up work has notable improved, too, but he’s barely played the game for half a decade and will be prone, like all the young guys, to inconsistency throughout the season. He’s got Big Cox and Nic Nat to contend with on Saturday, and that could end in kinds of sad if next week is a “down” week for the youth brigade.

For the second week in a row, however, the ultimate difference was My Favourite Hair. It’s hard to come up with anything that hasn’t already been said about Roo, let alone the attention he’s been given after two wonderful performances. Five goals, was involved in setting up more, but it was both his willingness and rare ability to step up and work hard when the game was on the line. To lead that much harder, to make that much more of a contest, to read the play well enough to know exactly how to do it all to maximum effect. Given his knee condition it seems impossible that he’d be able to keep up this kind of form throughout the season, but given his reaction after the siren over the past two weeks it looks like he’s got reasons that he really believes in to keep going. I always do fear he’s an injury away from the end of his playing days. He wants to play finals again; though unlikely that would be something wonderful to see.

GWS for much of the game had the ascendency and as I felt at half-time looked essentially a goal or two away from truly busting the game open. Even with Cameron and Patton well-held Smith and Giles chipped in for five and four respectively, and things felt very St Kilda-esque for players like that to all of a sudden decide to kick career-high (or at least equal-high in Giles’ case) goal hauls. Strangely, the tide turned with Dempster’s quite risky decision to play on from a free kick outside 50 and in less space than ideal rocketed a goal. He’s been a bit accident prone at times up to that point, but he was crucial alongside Ray, Gilbert, Delaney and Gwilt in that mad last quarter as they thwarted GWS’s numerous manic attempts to find a goal.

Ray again played what I thought was an unheralded role. His goal really was classy, but he put himself in the right spots so many times in defence and found plenty of the ball around the ground too.

It was great to have Lenny and Joey back. I know that Lenny didn’t get as much of the footy as he usually did, there was some real quality in his disposals and he even led like the consummate professional forward in that last quarter. Joey was good too of course – 25 possessions and a goal, but his experience and leadership is invaluable also, like Lenny’s.

The there was Armo, who collected 29 touches, a goal and a mark of the round nomination, captured best by this wonderful Wayne Ludbey shot which I’m sure will follow his career around. He’s looking bigger this year and using his frame to the team’s advantage. Whilst his numbers might go up and down – hopefully he can maintain them this year – his frame allows him to do the physical stuff that doesn’t get counted but really force the issue in tight.

Pleasingly, the tackle count was led by Tom Curren with seven. He was quiet otherwise but showed that he was ready to but his body on the line even if he wasn’t finding the footy himself. Also pleasing is that just behind him were Delaney, CJ, and Dunstan with six. CJ had his moments – he actually managed to hit a target with his right in the third quarter on the members wing, which everyone audibly approved of whilst finding comical.

Then there was Shane Savage. I actually thought in a game like that, bringing Josh Kelly on in his debut match wouldn’t be worth as much as a Shane Savage coming on and exerting himself in the middle and when the ball needed to be moved quickly forward, and would work in the Saints’ favour. Though given not a huge amount of time, it felt as though he had little influence. Numbers-wise, he had five kicks in his short time on the field which certainly isn’t bad, but it was Kelly that really impressed with 11 touches. He’s obviously incredibly raw physically but he really did apply himself well. I must admit that a few weeks out from last year’s draft I was hoping the Saints would get him, as at the time there was still talk Aish or Scharenberg might go as high as pick two, and with Boyd the obvious first pick it left Kelly, Billings also potentially available. I’m absolutely stoked to get Billings – he was my clear favourite for pick three once it was clear GWS would go with Kelly – but at the time I just thought the list’s situation called more for a pure midfielder. That’s been tempered by Dunstan for sure, as far as boosting midfield stocks go (they’re obviously different types of players though).

Dunstan again was impressive, taking the initiative to get physical in tight and his mark to finish off Eli’s delivery to the goal square in the last was really good. In talking with Rich and Nate I’ve struggled to articulate properly what they and everyone else can see – he’s ready to go. I can’t remember the last time a new young player made such an immediate impression and impact on the group and on the field. Nathan Wright had a great debut last year with a few good games following before injury, but that was in a weaker side and Dunstan’s game has more impact on the match as a whole. He actually looks like a farkin’ footballer; in fact I think I trust him as a player because he comes across as so un-St Kilda like. Sure of himself, someone that has led and someone that knows success – he was South Australia’s captain in their Division 1 Premiership at the U18’s National Championships last year. Easy to say in hindsight but I look at his first two games and compare them to what was shown by and became of Alistair Smith, Brad Howard, Justin Sweeney, and Nick Heyne. So far, we’ve got the first part right.

From my seats I must say the fans really have taken to the younger guys. It felt like people were very encouraging to the younger guys and understanding where they were at – Saunders was busy early particularly, but actually got a positive reception simply for his willingness to keep the ball moving in front front of him heading into attack in the first (in the lead up to Armo’s mark).

Nathan Wright’s well and truly back and in everyone’s good books too. His second and third efforts were really good and I love his willingness to hold on to the ball and take just enough time to make the right decision or take on his opponent. Like Dunstan, I like him because he doesn’t come across as having a St Kilda background.

Not sure about next week. I think Savage deserves another chance – particularly against a more experience side in the Eagles – but The Only Ross at St Kilda had 33 touches at Sandy and Billings got four quarters of game time. Milera was good too by all accounts, meaning he’s strung a few decent performances together and might be better as a straight swap for Savage. But right now I haven’t even registered that he’s still on the St Kilda list. Dylan Roberton did fark all, and if he’s replaced it would come down to team balance. Maybe Head Simpkin, maybe Josh Bruce, maybe Dunell, but I doubt it. Sam Fisher and his magnificent hair are still probably more than a week away, too.

Saturday afternoon footy is still king. Easy to say that, and easy to say I had a great time in hindsight too knowing that St Kilda did win. But the late third quarter rush had us all feeling good about footy again. Yes, Round 2; yes, two wins against the only two teams that finished below us last year. There are different reasons for the excitement this year, however. It was a great day at the footy watching St Kilda.

Who knows? Maybe it’s GWS that the Saints will be facing off with on the last Saturday in September some time later this decade. I actually thought briefly that this felt like the kind of game St Kilda and Geelong might have played early last decade. But at the time, the burden of history was great and paralleled between both clubs. Cruelly, when teams like St Kilda, the Bulldogs and Melbourne would be aiming for a successful period it’s GWS and the Gold Coast that would have established themselves up the top of the ladder, with plans to set up camp indefinitely. Any rivalry a club like St Kilda would have built with a franchise like GWS would be based on the here and now. GWS may count for something more than just an opponent. Rather, a weird monster, an AFL HQ-backed force, looking to crush a team hoping to give its loyal and long-suffering fans something of their own to look back on over the years.