Take a breath

By Tom Briglia

2016 NAB Challenge, Game 3 – Melbourne vs St Kilda

Ok right so wow, yeah, cool. We did it. We made it. It’s done, it’s over, the NAB Challenge gone, and now we can let the arduous torture that is following the St Kilda Football Club when it really counts begin again.

With last week’s cancellation and the first game hidden away in regional Victoria, St Kilda fans have mostly had slow and stilted waking up from the off-season slumber. Yesterday wasn’t really the shortform “arduous torture” that defines the NAB Cup overall. A beautiful autumn day, a few beers with brother Matt in some choice seats on the wing and nothing riding specifically on the game makes for a pretty cruisey long weekend Sunday. The game was free-flowing enough, with some good intensity here and there, some different jumpers – which I’ll cover in full in the coming weeks in what’s set to be a bumper 2016 St Kilda Jumper State of the Union – and the hilarity that often comes with St Kilda players attempting to execute basic possessions. “Everyone loves playing with him”, says the Saints’ site about Jarryn Geary, except for when you’re presenting anywhere between zero and 25 metres away when he’s got the footy.

Billings’s first quarter was the undoubted highlight. Three goals, including one from what’s quickly becoming a trademark long-distance shot off his trusty left boot. Billings is the kind of player that St Kilda never seems to have had, even in the more successful periods. Incredibly slick, incredibly intuitive, and will create and kick goals from anywhere at will. It’s the kind of player that seems to have been reserved onyl for Hawthorn and the Cats over the last decade particularly. Watching him and Lonie up forward – and hopefully Sinclair, assuming he quickly gets over his emerging case of second-year blues – will be very exciting. Lonie was very busy off the ball, throwing around his more solid frame around and threw in some sharp possession as well. Whilst Billings went quiet after his purple patch Lonie encouragingly managed to stay in the play for most of the match (also worth noting his post-match interview, like Billings has displayed with less excited various mouth noises, showed a very different person to the small child we drafted 16 or so months ago). Eli, Sinclair and Saunders were all left out of the team, but Eli’s and Saunders’ omissions didn’t have anyone leaving the ground wishing they’d got to have a cheeky peak at either before the season proper.

Possibly for the first time ever on a footy field My Favourite Hair in the AFL looked a little bit lost in his run in the high up the ground during the first half, at times looking for easy balls out the back. It took him dropping into defence at ties to add some stability to get himself into the game, but by the second half it was something that really began to click and prove to be something worth pursuing, particularly on the break when there was a turnover from Melbourne’s attack. His tight calf/whatever it was caused panic for all footy jumper aficionados – if it’s the MRV jumper as well, do they make the MRV game a different week? The same as the 50th Anniversary of the Premiership? What if they planned a jumper for that week as well? And so on, but he’s probably fine and we (I) look forward to holding our breath every time he’s near the footy in Adelaide.

That second half saw Bruce, Hickey and Riewoldt go through the forward line with Paddy still unavailable. Holmes came on for the second half and I thought it would have been a straight swap for Hickey, but Hickey looked vaguely more competent roaming around in the forward line after struggling to keep up with Friend of RWB Max Gawn* around the ground in the first half (*Anyone who Matt knows.). Holmes looked a lot more like an Australian Rules footballer than he did eight months ago and judging by Richo’s comments will be the rookie that is elevated to the list in place of Carlisle. His quicker, more considered reaction and increased physical presence immediately after the ruck contests was the clearest indication he’s made some progress.

Holmes’ elevation might be necessary because Billy Longer is slowly recovering from having his shoulder done last year and is still in the “getting beaten by Lewis Pierce” phase of his rehab. It also allows Hickey to drift forward and look more comfortable. Bruce looked pretty strong around the forward line for his 2.2, taking some really nice marks and applying effective albeit still treacle-slow pressure, so with Roo up the ground it might be a rotating cast of Hickey, Paddy and Roo around Bruce as the tall forwards for much of the year. Membrey came on in the third term and immediately looked spritely in some tough back-to-back contest but then disappeared just as quickly.

Roo indeed went to the forward line in the last quarter as the call came through from Finnis suggesting a win might be good for memberships. Melbourne were the ones who ran out the game best though; for all the good work of Steven, Armo and somehow Seb Ross the Dees had Oliver, Jones, Tyson, Salem and Bugg matching it in close and feeding it out to get things going their way. If it wasn’t for Jesse Hogan’s performance piece about life and loss the margin could have been a lot more. Mav looks great and handsome with the headband and all but FFS if you’re charging out of the middle in space it shouldn’t be a task to hit a forward on a clear lead. For this, I will leave it to a direct quote from the text my RWB cohort Richie sent me earlier today: “He’s got all the physical tools, but come on – just be good at football? It’s almost like…he and Curren should have a tailored pre-season where they’re just playing games. No gym.”

I’m not banking on Curren doing anything of substance anytime soon, and Freeman is a long way away so it helps that Montagna is still looking very solid. A couple of guys also worth mentioning in a more positive light her are Gresham and Acres. Gresham already looks comfortable at this level – you could almost have him in the Billings category in terms of guys that are just that good and step in and make an impact, and Acres’ presence grew as the game wore on; the point being is that when he does get the ball, he’s more composed and he’s making pretty good choices with it. His more solid frame helps with that too, because he’s getting the ball all around the ground and in a number of different types of contests. Roberton likewise, and there’ll be plenty of scope to talk about him throughout the season because yesterday really was encouraging but perhaps only caught the eye because he shaved his ‘ead.

Resident hard-arse Nathan Wright has been almost entirely forgotten at times but he was hard to ignore yesterday. Firstly he was wearing a glove, so some immediate novelty points there, and he was back to his no-regard-for-his-safety approach we’ve seen intermittently before he inevtiably gets injured. Geary goes hard at contests, sure, and “everyone loves playing with him”, but Wright will put himself in positions on the ground and in the air with no concern as to how he’s going to brace himself for the impact with the oncoming player or the ground on the way down.

What else to take out of it? Even much of the aforementioned faff preceding this sentence carries the asterisk of “it’s the NAB Challenge”. Gilbert playing the middle. Cool. Newnes playing in the middle, too. Sure. Seb Ross with 28 possessions. Uh huh. We won’t remember this game for any particular reason over the coming years; it was a a nice day out to tide us over after the previous week’s wash-out. It was a practice run for ourselves, too. Footy season, psychologically and its day-to-day machinations, is a way of life and it was a chance to remind ourselves of the pre-match preparations and quiet, tired Sunday train rides home. Take next weekend off, and then it’s time to do it all again.

  • http://www.redwhiteandblack.com.au Richard Lee

    I love ‘pure midfielder’ Black Acres. His last quarter was great. Was just a shame that he was put on ice for the 2nd/3rd terms.