Seasons past

By Tom Briglia

Round 21, 2016
St Kilda 5.0, 7.5, 9.8, 11.10 (76)
Sydney Swans 4.1, 8.4, 16.7, 23.8 (146)
Crowd: 33,059 at Etihad Stadium, Saturday, August 13th at 7.25pm

Between two wins from the first eight games and last night we swung between “mathematical chance” for a finals appearance and “part of the conversation” (as proxy for “better mathematical chance”). Ridiculously, we’re still a mathematical chance to make the eight, but more reasonably (and to the point) we’re no longer part of the conversation.

Saturday night marked the end of a few weeks in which we appeared to perhaps emerge from the depths of the last post-Grand Finals crash. This year will be noted for the big step taken by the club from the previous years, but certainly nothing more until we find out in the coming years what it actually led to.

Yet another late season drubbing against the Swans in hindsight was always on the cards. Our record against top eight sides hasn’t been awful – some of those encounters include our best footy for the year – but the Swans added to our 2016 pile of smashings at the hands of premiership fancies that have highlighted the gap still to be made between where we’re coming from, where we are and where we want to get to.

The AFL has enjoyed the comfort of recent years knowing that the Swans will be facing the lowly Saints late in the season in what surely looms as a key match for the Sydneysiders (#conspiracy). In Round 21 of 2013 the Swans doubled our score for a 59-point win; in Round 21 of 2014 Buddy went nuts and the Swans won by 71; last year we kicked only four goals in Sydney premiership hero Adam Schneider’s farewell match in Round 22 as the Swans shat in a 97-point thumping; and in Round 21 this year it was a 70-point margin.

Despite what was on the line for both team the atmosphere pre-match was one I haven’t quite experienced before. The Pride Match is a wonderful initiative by the club. Last night was the first time I ever saw two males holding hands at a game of footy. I saw one man get visibly emotional as he received his Pride scarf, which were sold out well before the game (I had to opt for the beanie after going to four different selling points inside and outside of the ground). There was a remarkably relaxed feeling walking through the crowd; people seemed to feel comfortable and there little of the bravado that often accompanies a boorish mass of people. People felt like they just be people.

The reception it received – judging by the media attention on the game, the atmosphere at the ground, and seeing how many people had purchased and were wearing the scarves and beanies – was incredibly heartening. As a straight, white male I’ve had the easiest of runs but to know this event was being planned and then actually attending was a relief. Some people will say it’s a PR stunt; others will click the “Angry” icon on Facebook posts from the club and the league; others will bemusingly leave flyers on windscreens around Trevor Barker Beach Oval on the day of Sandringham home games. Yes, free speech and all that, but the ideal of free speech is to have a serious conversation, and through that process weed out the excess and deadweight that gets in the way of growth and progress. It’s so great that the club I support engineered this event, but it’s so great that any club did.

Hey, remember that time we had pick #2 in the 2001 National Draft and we used it on Luke Ball and then Chris Judd got taken at #3 and the Eagles made back-to-back Grand Finals and won a premiership and Judd became one of the greatest players of all time? And then Luke Ball left after getting only 50 per cent game time in the 2009 Grand Final and won a premiership the following year for the club we played off against twice for the Cup? Anyway, three years ago we had the #3 pick and we used on this guy Jack Billings who I reckon will be pretty good, but the Bulldogs had pick #4 and they used it on Marcus Bontempelli who is exactly the kind of big-bodied, polished player who can kick goals that we’re chasing in a trade or via free agency to lead our midfield and is probably the best young guy in the comp at the moment? And albeit at this early stage Billings is giving us worrying signs that he might not be as good as thought he might be? He had five touches to three-quarter time last night. Yes, it’s not about this year; yes, he’s here for a career; but is anyone else slightly terrified about that situation? Here’s to a massive pre-season for Junior Burger.

Anyway, we’re looking thereabouts for the coveted #9 pick this year, having had it in 2006 and 2007, using it on Armo and Big Ben respectively. Armo’s a known quantity now – we know what his best is, and he was closer to it last night than he’s been all year. But he’s fallen well down in the pecking order of our prospective midfield through the anticipated climb up the ladder. Big Ben has turned into Shane Savage and Luke Dunstan (with pick #18 in 2013). I still think we finish ahead in that one (pick #19 in 2013 was Blake Acres which technically speaking we received from the Hawks in a separate deal for picks 24 and 59), although you’d have to ignore the fact that Patrick Dangerfield (yes) was taken with the pick immediately following Big Ben’s, and Cyril Rioli three picks later, and Harry Taylor at #17, and Alex Rance at #18, and Callan Ward at #19.

Blacres was really the only one that Richo highlighted in the post-match press conference. Again, he was just about everywhere. He started at centre bounces, and moved high up the ground and into defence, took on the opposition and moved smoothly through traffic, and played as a focal point up forward. It was his hard get-out from the middle that released Steven who ran and delivered to Mav for a goal in the first quarter, and twice in the second quarter after he was moved up forward pushed up a little to provide a link and delivered handsomely to Paddy on the lead.

He ended up with 1.3 amongst a couple of rushed shots and probably should have finished with two or three goals but in his turns up forward he covered for the glaring absence of Membrey and Bruce. Membrey looked likely early but after his early mark and goal neither really effected the game in any meaningful way. Paddy only finished with five disposals but he kicked two goals and presented very nicely when the guys further up the ground were holding up their end of the bargain.

The difference between the first and second halves was (obviously) profound. As someone who totally doesn’t play for the St Kilda Football Club I can’t actually tell you why, I can mostly just sit here at the keyboard and say I don’t think Billings was very good. Perhaps the enormity of getting through a season caught up with the group when faced with a genuine premiership prospect playing for a top-two spot; for whatever reason it might have been Richo pointed out that whilst the intent might have been there it simply wasn’t effective when a tackle was attempted or a turnover was on. The midfield was obliterated; Ross and Armo battled hard but Steven’s influence was quelled, Hickey couldn’t run after the first quarter and Gresham’s output was understandably down a little. Guys like Geary and Dunstan may well have been missed, but I don’t think their absence combined with a couple of umpiring howlers in the final quarter would have made much difference to this one. The Swans were controlled throughout and it felt as if we were playing above ourselves to stay in it until half-time; the short balls in to players in space in the forward 50 was our forté last week; this week it was the Swans who ran, spread and presented in numbers all across the ground.

Strangely, the best moment of the night might have been Eminem’s snap goal in the first quarter when he was low to ground and under pressure; at that point we were looking like we might really present a challenge to the Swans. However, he and Minchington are the most likely to come out on form next week as surely some novelty moves are made to make way for Shenton, Templeton, Holmes, Brandon White, et al. What might save Wright is what saved Minchington the week before – low possession numbers offset by a large tackle count; Wright had an equal game-high of eight (shared with Newnes and Tom Mitchell) whilst Minchington had 10 against the Blues. But the temptation to have a look at guys that have performed consistently well for the Zebras without reward surely becomes too great given the only thing on the line is exactly which top-10 pick we get that we might regret in hindsight. Shenton kicked another four goals for Sandy today, making it 10 in the last two weeks and 16 in his last five games for the Zebras. I don’t know how many possessions Eli needs to get and Holmes’ best chance comes this week with Hickey in doubt.

Who else but the Saints to play into form a premiership contender? Buddy roamed scarily across the ground in the second half and incredibly racked up the highest possession count of his career (28) to go with his six goals; at the other end Aliir Aliir continued to establish himself with his composure Fletcher-esque reach – his spoil on Paddy wide near the 50-metre arc was sublime. Their midfield showed off the best of their hardness and polish, and racked up huge numbers (and a few goals) en masse. To put it short, the Swans looked scary, and there’s every chance we’ll be looking back on Hawthorn vs. Sydney Grand Finals in the even-numbered years of 2012, 2014 and 2016.

The season effectively ended with potential future captain Jack Newnes’ flying shot at goal at the beginning of the third term. His shot cannoned into the post; had it gone through we would have been in front, but from then on Buddy alone collected 15 possessions and kicked three goals in the quarter as the Swans kicked 8.3 to 2.3 for the term; 15.5 to 4.5 for the half, and 17 of the last 20 goals for the match. The final siren marked a 141-point turnaround from the previous week, making it our 11th highest in history but only eight points from second on the list.

I don’t think any reasonable Saints fan would have set themselves for a season that ends immediately with the sounding of a siren – I talk of course about finding yourself in a final, or an effective elimination match near the end of the year. When you’ve been at our low level over the past few years the end of the season is literally just the end of the final home and away match, but you’re counting down to that from around the halfway point when it’s clear no dream run will emerge. We didn’t quite get that this year. Whilst the slow start to the season and costly losses to the Gold Coast and North Melbourne (at least one of the two to them) had us on or near the ropes for much of it, the emergence of several younger guys and some genuinely good wins on the back of some genuinely good football meant it would take a few serious shakes it took to bring the whole thing down.

In hindsight it was the 2003 season that was the link between the post-1997 Grand Final crash and rebuild and the heady 2004-2010 premiership-fancy era. I don’t think the improvement in 2017 will be as exponential as what the stunning 2004 season gave us, but with the addition of Carlisle, perhaps another big-name player in the off-season, and another season’s experience for the younger guys improvement has to be a non-negotiable. Amongst all the forgettable games, conjecture by amateur bloggers about our recruiting and the piercing draft and trade talk, time passes. Slowly but surely we’re approaching that point in the future we’ve been talking about for years; that point where what the club has been building towards materialises. Over the next couple of weeks we get to relax a bit, and then we get the chance to really take a break for a few months. These types of seasons can become quite laborious as a fan and it’s a welcome breather. The weather in Melbourne today was beautiful and in tandem with last night’s result compounded the feeling of another season going by; the unfamiliar weight of pressure, however small, of the last few weeks had been lifted. But as one Sydney premiership hero (and yes, ex-Saint too) once said, “Give me Grand Final nerves any day”.

RedWhiteandBlack.com.au 2016 Best Player Votes – Round 21
David Armitage – 3
Blake Acres – 2
Seb Ross – 2
Leigh Montagna – 1
Jack Newnes – 1
Nick Riewoldt – 1

Totals
Jack Steven – 32
Nick Riewoldt – 23
Seb Ross – 23
Tim Membrey – 18
Tom Hickey – 14
David Armitage – 11
Leigh Montagna – 11
Blake Acres – 10
Jack Newnes – 9
Mav Weller – 7
Jade Gresham – 6
Jack Billings – 5
Sam Fisher – 5
Jarryn Geary – 5
Josh Bruce – 4
Sam Gilbert – 4
Dylan Roberton – 4
Shane Savage – 4
Sean Dempster – 2
Paddy McCartin – 2
Luke Delaney – 1
Luke Dunstan – 1
Jack Sinclair – 1