“What the hell was that?”

By Tom Briglia

Round 8, 2016
West Coast Eagles 9.3, 12.5, 15.8, 20.12 (132)
St Kilda 1.3, 1.9, 2.10, 3.11 (29)
Crowd: 36,140 at Domain Stadium, Sunday, May 15 at 4.40pm WST

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After the great showing against Melbourne and then the incredible exhaustion that was last week’s loss to North, it was probably welcome by Saints fans that we got to take a breather out of sight and out of mind in the Sunday Twilight Zone timeslot, and with the width of Australia between most of the supporter base and the team itself on game day.

We could all gather on a Sunday evening and relax, game situation permitting, in our families’ Ormond homes and eat nachos and Mum’s goulash. Just a typical footy viewing experience in the 21st Century.

For the first time this year, as we get into the routine of the day-to-day and week-to-week of the footy season, I wanted to avoid anything and everything to do with the footy media covering the ins and outs of what was a rather painful finish last week. I didn’t want to watch the Goldstein/Hickey ruck contest, I didn’t want to watch Mason Wood holding on to the footy in the final seconds, I didn’t want to post futile Twitter comments about specific poor umpiring decisions that didn’t go our way during the game but did go theirs and how it wasn’t just the Goldstein free that had an impact on the result. But there was some comfort to be found Luke Dunstan’s reaction after the siren – the players found the experience upsetting too, and here we had rare proof.

So on Sunday I stayed on the 55 tram beyond Bourke St and stayed on until Flinders Street, got a motivational coffee from whichever shitbox franchise was closest to my body and got on the train and then bus to Mum, Dad and Matt’s in Ormond. Matt sent a joke text about Lewis Pierce being a late inclusion which I took seriously. Not funny, Matt; you know I’ve been pining to see his leadership skills that the club flaunted upon his drafting for years now.

The nagging question in my mind during the week was along of lines “Would there be a let-down in effort following two very strong showings?”. I couldn’t figure out whether if we’d won it have would have been more likely to lead to a “week off” for a young group prone to inconsistency, hidden a continent away, but given the effort I think that was probably a moot point – it would have been about whether there was reward for effort last week or not, and we leave it there in the closing hours of last weekend.

Given the stage of development of the group perhaps this was good timing for a little slump given the winnable (believe it or not, we’re able to say that now with some confidence) games against Essendon and Fremantle in the following weeks. Another big showing against the Eagles and surely the young guys would be cooked for a bit.

Well, they were definitely cooked and a week off it was in-farking-deed. No-one bar Seb Ross, Jack Steven, Joey and my Favourite Hair in the AFL and maybe Jade Gresham apparently made the flight over (I never thought I’d include Seb in that type of bracket) as the Eagles essentially went out straight of the middle at each opportunity for six goals within seven minutes and 25 seconds of play (literally).

We only made two changes to the line-up for this one, with all the emergencies getting a cheeky look in by being flown over with the team and avoiding being blown away by Casey and the bay breeze at Trevor Barker on the Saturday arvo. The changes were at first refreshing, however; Sinclair was genuinely missed against North as Lonie and Minchington failed to have much impact in a game in which we really needed more fire in the front half, and the stoic but ageing Fisher was replaced by Roberton – obviously popular with the coaches given no VFL time required to come back from his injury.

On the surface, the problem was that this was one game you’d need a Fisher, particularly with no Delaney or Goddard in, or even throw one of those guys in just the sake of having a relatively larger human body in the vicinity of the defence, given Kennedy, Darling and to a lesser extent Nic Nat would effectively be left to Dempster and uh, maybe Gilbert and Roberton. That’s a concession of a lot of height and expertise in playing the defensive roles required to quell giants like those.

It turned out to be a moot point, and we’d paid a heavy price quickly anyway. Richo quite reasonably pointed out post-match that given West Coast’s dominance out of the middle he wasn’t sure how much difference Fisher or a bigger body would have actually made given a lot of the goals were from hit-ups – good kicks into space that the Eagles’s forwards worked smartly to create, and our guys simply weren’t aware or switched on enough to negate.

Much has been made of the Eagles’ rather curious drop in form outside of their own Corporate Name Stadium but I thought the size of the ground might actually give the Saints something to work with, much like the MCG did in Round 3. That admittedly rather had to do with the width of the ground, allowing the Saints to use freer options wider as Richo talked about on SEN last week, and Domain Stadium, whilst the longest ground in the competition at 175 metres, is actually on of the narrowest at 122 metres (the MCG field is around 141 metres wide). Would we struggle to make room for ourselves if we were coming forward anywhere from the back half? I thought it would mean having to be bolder in numbers running with the ball from the back of the centre circle to cut through, and Riewoldt here would be key to prove either stability in the back half or an option for a get-out-of-traffic kick. This was where Sinclair has been good for us as well, pushing hard up to provide an option by foot wide and his field kicking has been great, but he’s been able to run forward with the play and have a presence there too. Again, it was something we really missed against North and where Lonie and Minchington’s quiet showings hurt us. But for all that pre-match wondering and postulating – we could all have spent hours together in the Fox Footy Lab comparing graphs and heat maps and overlaid graphics – it counted for fark all. The Eagles were relentless and played their home ground as the scene for a non-stop onslaught. Possessions and merely attempts to provide a presence around the contested ball by guys like Acres, Billings, Roberton and Savage were fraught with anxiety as the referred pressure took its toll, and on many an occasion led to turnovers and West Coast goals – Sav’s gift to Kennedy in the first quarter the best example.

Work at stoppages was talked about in that same SEN interview with Richo, and North’s ability to break away from those for most of three-and-a-half quarter last week ultimately got them over the line. Until that’s remedied we’re best when the ball is in motion, and we’re able to apply pressure and turnover the footy whilst keeping the game moving. No prizes for guessing that we’re gonna need to be talking about work at stoppages a whole lot more this week. Hickey was off (Richo said it was worst game – certainly for the year) and from the lopsided opening bounce (not that it mattered as the subsequent centre bounces proved) Nic Nat had a day out and there was an unadulterated supply for the West Coast forwards, with Kennedy taking a mark a few meters out from goal seconds into the match an ominous welcome to Perth.

Richo rightfully cracked the shits at the players in the quarter-time huddle – he’d obviously blown his stack mere minutes into the game so had time to prepare some verbals of good quality and quantity – and Fox Footy showed him specifically taking Blake Acres aside and giving him a cleaner, 2010’s version of a Ken Sheldon to Craig Devonport. Blake responded with fark all and, given how quickly the coaches have been willing to drop him back to Sandy, surely sealed his spot in the Zebras’ line-up next week.

He certainly wasn’t the only one that was disappointing to the point of being dropped. Lonie is the obvious next in line, and given Gresham genuinely gave good effort in the second half by trying to meet the Eagles’ physicality and get his own ball and get things moving – albeit with some wayward kicking – and that Richo went out of his way to talk up his efforts post-match, I’m sure it’s going to be the Seaford local also in yellow, black and blue next week with Blacres. Sinclair should be held onto given he was coming back from injury and his role would have suffered given how effective the Eagles’ pressing and pressure was across the ground. Lonie had six tackles, which are the kind of numbers that kept Minchington in the side for an extra week or two, but I can only remember one of those and he’s otherwise been barely sighted in two games now. Eli didn’t get a chance to back up his 36-possession game in the VFL the previous week as he was flown over the Perth but might be one to come in.

I’m certainly not writing Lonie off altogether here; we know that he’s capable of making an impact on games of footy. Obviously he’s just not in the right headspace – him and probably 17 others yesterday – but he seems to be having a case of the second-year blues. It happens. He’s a kid. Blacres likewise, and even Billings, whilst his numbers are up this year on a consistent basis, still goes missing for large parts of games. Yesterday he seemed quite overwhelmed by the tenacity the Eagles brought to their game. He wasn’t the only one, but it sticks out a bit with the younger guys and when they might have looked a little off the boil at times already this year. It’s part of it.

Less excuse can be made for Gilbert’s six touches, as good as he’s been at times this year, and another lacklustre performance from Mav. Mav’s obviously a football generation behind Gilbert but Joey is a football generation ahead of Gilbert and was again in our best, and having him and Jack Steven being left one-out in the goal square against Kennedy and Darling at different times in the game is a good look for nobody. It was guys like Dempster, Roberton and Gilbert that should have been making sure that didn’t happen, not getting wandering around getting six touches as a senior player.

Membrey had five touches after kicking eight goals in two games. Aside from a strong mark wide on the wing in the first quarter his contribution was mostly two squandered goal opportunities in the second and fourth quarters from about 25 metres out in front. I’m not sure if it’s enough to take him straight out for Paddy after two really good performances coming straight back into side; Paddy certainly didn’t do enough to smash the recall door down on the Saturday in admittedly very tough conditions but who knows, Membrey might be in the same basket as Blacres when it comes to the coaches deciding what is it that they do that constitutes them being selected week in, week out.

Of course, it was a lean day for all the forwards; the ball was rarely in attack and often they were caught too high up when there was a turnover and weren’t even in the forward line, or the disposal going forward – particularly from just ahead of centre – was simply atrocious. Riewoldt managed to get his 22 touches and 10 marks and again had a presence across the entire field, but only managed 0.2. Bruce presented all day for little return; he finished with 1.1 from three gettable shots at goal. Indeed, there was a theme; 1.9 at half-time and 3.11 come the final siren reflected a few things – not just the Eagles’ pressure on shots at goal but how difficult they made the positioning of set shots and the inability of our guys to convert when they actually got a decent chance.

Our lowest score since Round 6, 2002, the week after the infamous “worst game ever” draw against the Swans when GT decided to throw the numbers back behind the ball as if we’d put ourselves in front in the final minute before the opening bounce. Both that game and last ended with a St Kilda player in tears after the siren (Begley in 2002), and both times we were blown away the following week. For differing reasons; GT thought he’d try the same trick on eventual premier Collingwood and we ended up kicking 3.10; we were simply too early in our development to put it down to inconsistency also, we were just rubbish (we’d lost by 122 points at the Cattery the week before). This time around we’d taken it to the reigning three-peater and the lossless ladder leader, not to mention pulled off a couple of decent wins so this was more to do with fickle nature of being at this early (but slightly more advanced) stage of development.

This game strayed into comedic realms at times, rather than staying simply in the old-style depressing-trips-interstate by-St Kilda-feelings-of-sinking sphere. The rain made a lot of players look silly a lot of times, with the moulded soles of their boots obviously not able to handle the moisture and adding random slippages to the game at least made things a little interesting. Newnes’ unforced slip over nothing in the final term on the outer wing was genuinely funny. Even Mav’s goal was kind of comical – but mostly on a different plane; this was more in the Caydn Beetham vein of “and they decide to that now” grim-faced smile of a St Kilda supporter when the game’s well and truly over.

Strangely, it was the kind of day in which the still poorly-haired Seb Ross announced himself further as a genuinely good midfielder, if only because he was able to continually get the ball – 31 possessions in all – and use it half-decently when the team was getting an absolute smacking, and not just racking up numbers when the going’s goos. Richo referred to him as a “shining light”, which, again, I have to admit I never, ever thought I’d hear be said about Sebastian Ross. But here we are. It’s a strange time to be alive.

Still, Jack Steven’s decent performance notwithstanding, it was another game that shows we really are short at least one A-grade midfielder in this team that we’re building, and that free agency and the trade periods over the next year or two really are going to be nailed. And, uh, Freeman stays healthy whilst simultaneously collecting more than 10 disposals in VFL Development League appearances. Priddis alone proved that in the opening term; with five minutes left before the first break he’d had 10 contested possessions and had the game set up for them. Yes, we still have the development of Acres and Gresham and Dunstan and Billings et al to look forward to as well as guys that will be going through the midfield (some more than others), but I feel like this group needs someone just slightly more senior to be the focal point of the planned rise up the ladder. Armo’s close but too inconsistent and probably too immature as a footballer relative to guys like Selwood, Mitchell, and so on (let alone not being in their league as a player, period). Jack Steven is great but shouldn’t be the spearhead really.

A lonely train and tram ride home back to Brunswick West on a Sunday night after a close loss or an absolute shellacking – or wherever it may be that you’re going – can be an isolating experience. These are the resulting weeks of performances like that where you question the positivity you had about the club’s direction mere days ago. But that’s the nature of this stage of development. Late last Sunday afternoon it seemed as though – indeed, we were – overrunning the competition’s only undefeated team late in the match; that same time one week later our follow-up challenge had been shot to piece in less than 10 minutes of play. In the next two weeks we play the two bottom teams on the ladder. Now’s not the time to take anything for granted.

RedWhiteandBlack.com.au 2016 Best Player Votes – Round 8
Seb Ross – 3
Jack Steven – 2
Leigh Montagna – 2
Nick Riewoldt – 2
Jade Gresham – 1

Totals
Nick Riewoldt – 15
Jack Steven – 11
Leigh Montagna – 8
Jack Newnes – 6
David Armitage – 5
Tom Hickey – 5
Jack Billings – 4
Sam Fisher – 4
Sam Gilbert – 4
Blake Acres – 3
Seb Ross – 6
Tim Membrey – 2
Shane Savage – 2
Josh Bruce – 1
Sean Dempster – 1
Jade Gresham – 1
Jack Sinclair – 1
Mav Weller – 1

  • Campbell

    This was always a danger game I reckon. WCE at home after a thumping on the road is the last game you want. I’m not overly fussed as about 20 mins in it was obvious it was going to be another 100 pointer. For what it’s worth, it’ll be this groups last I think, the group won’t allow that type shizen again.

    I was really disappointed that Robbo was singled out for praise. He seems like a liability to me, fit or unfit. He kicks and handballs to stationary targets, his kicks have no penetration and are slow through the air and he’s not a great 1 v 1 defender to. He’ll need to be replaced as we progress into the finals.

    It was great to see Gresham show some composure with the ball and take on some players. His execution was poor but everyone’s was diabolical so I wouldn’t hold that against him.

  • Tom Briglia

    I was quietly hoping that we’d made our way out of being prone to 100 point-plus losses. Alas.

    I can’t see Roberton being a part of our next premiership tilt. He’d be handy as a depth player but unless he’s playing at his maximum every single week (not confident) I’d think he’d be superseded as guys like Brandon White come through (ideally).

    Really good to see Gresham decide to be proactive rather than approach contests haphazardly and visibly be worried out of it like so many of his teammates. You’re right, I think we can gloss over his disposal on this occasion. Looking forward to him getting some more game time this year and it was good to see Richo single him out post-match.

  • Tom Briglia

    I was quietly hoping that we’d made our way out of being prone to 100 point-plus losses. Alas.

    I can’t see Roberton being a part of our next premiership tilt. He’d be handy as a depth player but unless he’s playing at his maximum every single week (which I’m not confident about) I’d think he’d be superseded as guys like Brandon White come through (ideally).

    Really good to see Gresham decide to be proactive rather than approach contests haphazardly and visibly be worried out of it like so many of his teammates. You’re right, I think we can gloss over his disposal on this occasion. Looking forward to him getting some more game time this year and it was good to see Richo single him out post-match.

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

    I think the fact that Richo went to the lengths of both singling out publicly the guy (s) he was most unhappy irate with (Hickey) and the guy he was happiest with (Gresham and Roberton) says something about how flummoxed and livid he was with that performance.

    I don’t rate Robbo either, but the coaches obviously do. That area of the ground is one that is pretty curious for us. Joey going back behind the ball has largely payed dividends; Sav has played a lot better this year; Webster continues to be pretty reliable. And Fisher and Dempster have been remarkable. But, we still have some dead wood there. Roberton isn’t part of the solution, I don’t think Geary is either. Gilbert has been very good, but he too is stop-gap.

    Brodie Murdoch has reportedly been doing really well at Sandy around half-back, so perhaps he’d be the most likely right now to push Robbo et al out of a spot. D-Mac seems to have had a stuttering start to the year at Sandy.

    So if you’re not fussed it was going to be a 100+ loss, then are you fussed about how many wins we accumulate this year?

  • Campbell

    Yeah it’s a really good question. I’d love your opinion too actually. For me, it’s critical that we win more than we did last year, so I believe that’d be 7 wins. I honestly wouldn’t care if we didn’t win any beyond that. We’re going to lose plenty of close ones and be in it until 3qt in a handful too, that’s just the stage I believe we’re at, it’s important that we go through ‘learning to win tight game’s’ stage. There is no doubt in my mind however that there’s again, like last year, a balance between wins and ladder position for draft picks, we desperately need a top 5 pick I reckon, a midfielder. We’re a little blue collar at the moment through the middle and I think that if we finish somewhere like 10th or 11th, we’ll miss out on the really elite mids. If you look at the Dogs, they had that season, might’ve been 14 where they regressed and ended up with bontempelli who has added the last piece to their midfield. What do you guys think?

  • Tom Briglia

    We’re definitely after an elite mid through either the draft/trade/free agency. So there’s a bit of a tendency to not mind too much about a low finish and get a high pick. Development like this is never linear and I have a feeling we’re probably two years behind the Bulldogs (to simplify it) and there’ll be some plateauing here and there (think 2001 and 2002, but not quite as bad) until guys get games. The last time this happened things exploded in 2004, and whilst I’m definitely not banking on a season like that in 2017 the improvement, if we do things properly, might be a big step after a few more baby steps than we were keen on.