Round 12, 2017
Adelaide Crows 5.6, 8.9, 11.11, 16.15 (111)
St Kilda 1.1, 2.4, 3.10, 7.12 (54)
Crowd: 46,082 at Adelaide Oval, Friday, June 9th at 7.20pm CST
One year and four days before Friday night, St Kilda was hammered at the Adelaide Oval as the Crows welcomed us to what was set to be long, cold winter.
The 88-point loss came just three weeks after a 103-point loss to the Eagles, also on the road, which in turn followed a seven-point loss to the unbeaten North Melbourne that ended murkily. Two wins against the bottom two teams in Essendon and Freo had steadied things leading into the Adelaide game, but we were shown up in a big way by a much classier and smarter football side.
The Sunday evening in 2016 was further dulled by Goddard (H.) who, in his first game for the season, vaguely changed direction and in one second lost his next 12 months of footy. We were thus staring down a much wider, deeper barrel of weekly novelty 22s that come with the back half of lost seasons in a rebuild. There was no Carlisle and Brown yet, and Goddard offered the only real opportunity to get the development process in the back half ticking over from Dempster, Fisher and the forgotten Delaney. Were we going to be watching a combination of any and all of Coughlan, Payne, Rice and White, with maximum Minchington, Lonie, O’Kearney and Holmes?
Adelaide Oval’s introduction to the AFL as a full-time venue coincided with our 27th wooden spoon, and our average losing margin there had been 63 points ahead of this weekend. Meanwhile, Adelaide this year had kicked the late 1970s-esque scores of 147, 153, 140 and 143 at the venue. It was an ominous formline. Which has a strange thing to think and feel; a month ago we’d beaten GWS on a Friday night in what felt to be a stirring occasion for the club. Three weeks later the bye couldn’t come quick enough.
Further compounding things was that Adelaide was celebrating the 20th anniversary of their 1997 premiership. We were only happy to oblige by wearing our faux-throwback clash guernsey (as magnificent as it is) to really help the Crows celebrate and, as Cameron Ling pointed out on the broadcast, their three-quarter time score of 11.11 (77) was the same as their own in the 1997 Grand Final. Our three-quarter time score on Friday of 3.10 (28) was just shit.
Pretty fucking bemusingly, even the club was posting “20 year anniversary” faff on social media during the week, in the form of footage of Saints supporter Mark Doran crashing Aussie Jones and Tony Brown’s house early on Grand Final morning courtesy of some fucking idiot producer at Channel 7. We lost you clowns. It might feel a little hollow to post something like highlights of the 2005 1st Qualifying Final win against the Crows given what happened two weeks later in the Preliminary Final, but perhaps after the 2009 and 2010 Grand Finals and the resulting fall-out we just have to really own being the St Kilda fucking Football Club.
The Crows had kicked the first goal of every one of their games at Adelaide Oval this year, and this week was no different. We’d actually opened with a healthy few minutes that saw Paddy make his usually strong start and for a few moments we looked switched on. The bye seems to affect teams in varying ways, but after Josh Bruce kicked our first goal it looked like we needed another one. No willingness to run and spread from half-back, and Charlie Cameron and Wayne Milera particularly made multiple Saints at a time look stuck in the turf. The scoreline of 5.6 to 1.1 by quarter time was somehow flattering. Damningly, Bruce would still be our only goalscorer at three-quarter time
Acres, Billings, Gresham et al. are the kinds of players we’re beginning to look to to lift and get us out of trouble, which can be refreshing and encouraging given it’s the result of some special performances this year rather than just hoping for a young guy to put in a huge performance. However, we’re also still at the stage of development in which we’re looking to these players before the game’s even started, and young guys are no guarantee to turn up and do their presumed thing week-in, week-out. We got smacked by the wrong sides of those.
At quarter-time Acres and Steele had one touch each; Gresham three and Billings four. At half time the respective count was seven, five, six and nine. The issue with this is that the numbers actually reflected what was going on – Richo pointed out after the game that on paper the contest might had read a little more evenly, but it simply didn’t translate into how effective the use of the ball and the pressure was compared to Adelaide’s. Unfortunately, they’d worked out how to handle Sloane being tagged thing. He only had five touches at half-time after being worked over by Stevens and Steele, but they had 21 other guys doing plenty of good work.
Whereas the GWS win saw someone like Gresham kick three important goals throughout the second half after next to no impact at half-time, and Acres kick two goals in as many minutes in the last quarter to take us from nine points down to three points up, no one was really able to switch their game from “off” to “on” during the match. Our best players per their positions on Friday night – Ross, Bruce, Paddy, Webster and perhaps Sinclair and Geary (C), for his job on Betts and unwavering attack at the ball and the contest, were all consistent from the beginning.
Until we get Kelly or someone similar, or use at least one of those first-round draft picks, it’s going to be incredibly incumbent on the intent and hard work of the players to allow us wilt or thrive through 2017. I feel like we’re already glorifying the GWS game, but the hard work that night was genuinely instructive of what this side is capable of even with an incomplete list and the lack of class and creativity with the ball compared to what we’re after. Because otherwise this year we’ve only beaten Collingwood – above us in 11th place – and the bottom three sides. Class, to a point, can fill the gap on the days when a side isn’t quite switched on. Blue-collar footy requires consistent and ferocious application, otherwise you look like us on Friday night. But you do need both, and we’re still looking for the balance of players that will maximise both aspects.
Webster’s return ended the incredible period of time that we never thought would happen; in which we were saying “shit I hope Webster comes back soon”, “we’re really missing Webster” etc. etc. His disposal is genuinely good and something we’ve clearly missed, and he commits himself defensively to every contest is near whether it’s a tackle or in the air. Perhaps to a fault – he went back with the flight of a Greenwood kick forward from a stoppage intercept, missed the Brown and Otten contest and Otten was able to track back with the ball and snap one from the pocket. But he was one of the few that showed real aggression on a night in which we were too conservative, with and without the ball, to the point we were insipid.
The overall pattern was far too familiar. It’s also the kind of thing that cruelly feeds itself if you’re lacking in players that don’t just appear to not recognise it, but also that aren’t willing and able to actually do something about it in the moment. My Favourite Hair in the AFL was one who managed to do it against the Blues in what was retrospectively a torrid day despite the win; he was the only one in the third quarter that sought to change the tempo and flow of the game once he got the ball in his hands. Holding onto the ball from the back corner of the centre square, looking for a short option, and following it up, he managed to generate a scoring opportunity that was fittingly shanked. The point is – it was Riewoldt who was able to work himself into a position to get the ball and impact the game.
Dare I say Sinclair was one of the few that seemed capable of doing both? I might be giving him praise for the wrong thing. Typically when players like he and Billings need to push up to the defensive 50-metre arc for their touches it means we’re rolling back hard as a team because we’re under the pump. Both ended up with 25 touches, and Billings by game’s end was playing more in the forward line and looked much more dangerous – the game was long-gone at the time but his solo effort and goal in the pocket was a true glimpse of why he was taken at pick three.
Sinclair though was making some sort of endeavour and impact to the game earlier on, when it was actually still vaguely alive. He’s a smart footballer and rarely tries to do much, but will still look to make the most of each of his disposals. Multiple times when he had the ball across half-back he thought through his surroundings and took on opposition players in lieu of running options around him. He’s one of the few players who lowers his eyes and can deliver a decent pass in front of an option; it also allows anyone who might have been forward of the play to create some space on their opponent and provide that option in the first place.
“What’s that stuff?”
Nathan Wright was one that really struggled in this space. He doesn’t get much of the footy but his 2.2 from 12 touches and seven tackles against GWS, in his first game in six weeks for the injured Mav, was rewarded with being immediately dropped from the team for, uh, Mav. His seemingly sudden inclusion did make sense but he just didn’t seem to have the awareness when he found himself a part of any rebounding chain and it’s fair to say he had a shocker. One kick, seven handballs, two tackles, 0.0.
Wright has formed part of a rotating cast with Lonie and Minchington playing that other small forward role, as Billings and Sinclair have well and truly entrenched themselves in the side. Mav is well down on his output last year, both defensively and offensively and his clangers are amongst the most royal in the side, and perhaps Gresham is due for a spell with Zebras to really get busy and find some form. He’s certainly got enough natural class with the footy though, and both seem to have the vote of confidence from the coaches for the time being.
However it begs the question about how much continuity is required in someone’s game? There’s obviously no blanket answer and needs to be taken on a case-by-case basis. Wright has been played in Rounds 1, 7 and 12 this year. Minchington racked up 27 touches and kicked three goals in Sandy’s loss on Saturday, and by now has nothing else to prove at VFL level. You could say the same about Lonie, who has been returning similar numbers for a long time for the Zebras, as well as hitting the scoreboard. Either needs to be given the chance to work themselves into form at senior level and learn from that, just as they can learn from being dropped. Perhaps Wright does too, but Minchington and Lonie are both more dynamic.
Bruce provided an example of the timely dropping and returning a player form the senior side. People were critical that it came at the expense of some of our structure, and if that’s true then perhaps it’s something we needed to cop in the short-term (not that it specifically mattered to the result on Friday). But he took marks he hasn’t been taking, really hit some contests hard and got some space on his opponent in way that he hasn’t done as effectively for some time. A return of 4.1 was a great reward, not to mentioned giving on or two away, and if overall use of the footy improves up the ground then a rejuvenated Bruce would be better for everyone.
On a night in which we’d kicked 3.10 to three-quarter time, a little paradoxically it was Paddy that also offered some highlights. He attacked the ball hard, he pushed up the ground hard to provide a link and again showed off his ability to handle the ball low to the ground and to turn in a small space. Unlike Bruce, he wasn’t able to maximise his numbers in front of goal but his 22nd game was encouraging and he needs to play more often than not through the rest of this year.
The impending return of My Favourite Hair in the AFL may throw Membrey’s spot into jeopardy, but I’d sooner be looking at someone like Joey to take the place of. His experience, from the couch, seemed only to count for knowing exactly how to kick loopy passes no matter what the situation ahead. Yes, I’m sure he brings in a whole lot of leadership, chat, etc. etc. etc. but is it time someone like Rice comes in? Savage has disappeared Delaney-style (and Armo might be following him), and playing Rice (or even O’Kearney, once we can promote him to the senior list) might provide much more upside. Gilbert was in a similar position earlier this year but has actually improved and now offers too much presence and, dare I say it, more effective disposal.
Simply, the Crows only need to kick a couple of goals and we become too conservative in the back half. We looked to limit damage that hadn’t even happened yet, rather than looking to create some of our own. It was simply too easy to put us in a mode that compromises how we move going forward. Too many drifted back and we were timid on the rebound.
I said before that the players need to be able to recognise this and do something about it. It wasn’t just about coming off half-back, but the ball was there often because the Crows dominated us at the stoppages and in close right across the ground, and so were getting it down there regularly in the first place. Ross was the only of the mids who really had some influence in close and even backed his acceleration at times. Otherwise we’d sacrificed Stevens’ game for something that wasn’t going to work if everyone else dishes up that kind of slop; Steele was anonymous and Jack Steven played a phantom 33-possession match. Jack Newnes was prone to some serious shanks. I’m not sure if Billy Longer is good at anything anymore. He came close to even in the hit-outs but his direct opponent was one of Adelaide’s best. Meanwhile, when Billy gets the ball you can watch him act on his thoughts in real time about what the coaches said to do during the week when you get the ball, which is get them free from the tackle which is definitely going to happen soon and then try and dribble the ball over to a teammate.
The post-match press conference was the flattest I’ve seen Richo. For the first time he looked like a coach under pressure. Indeed, given the situation that he came to the club in, his development has come in tandem with that of the group’s, and indeed the club’s as it changes significantly off the field also.
Two obvious things – I’m not in the coaches’ box, ever; and the coaches would recognise immediately what was going on in the first 10 to 15 minutes. Richo pointed out that the “numbers looked reasonable, if you just look at numbers”, but the difference was how positively they were able to use the ball and our inability to cope with their pressure. How responsible is he for that? He bemoaned the “lack of dare and run”. Ultimately, is that something the players need to take charge of? Any game plan will come undone if your players don’t look like they’re playing to it. How much of that can Richo influence during quarters, and how much of that can he influence at the breaks?
There’s been plenty of talk about our lack of a Plan B. Right now, effectively our Plan B appears to be what we did on Friday night – shit ourselves and park the bus. Three goals in 90 minutes of footy was an appropriate accompaniment to the old Association Football analogy. The club has built plenty of depth on the list, but that’s all still developing and we’re still yet to have completed our publicly stated plan for adding star quality the list, let alone that list taking us to where we want to go. Maybe a more effective Plan B, or even C, will be a little easier to draw up and carry out once we have some higher abilities at our disposal.
On the eternal echo chamber of SEN during the week Robbo said Richo was had higher than average level pressure for a coach. It’s important to think about why he might be under pressure. We’re one win ahead of where we were after playing 11 games last year. Were we expected to be much better than last year? Are we still coming down from people saying we might a shot at top four following the GWS win? Were we meant to be really good this year? Did we play above ourselves last year? Only St Kilda could be a victim of its own success, and have that success equate to finishing in ninth place.
The nature of footy means you usually only know these things retrospectively. After Round 2 I was hoping this was our Geelong 2006, or our Bulldogs 2014 (but, uh, without the coach getting sacked). After Round 8 I was hoping this our Bulldogs 2016, or something like it. Now I’m just wondering how 360 on Monday night’s gonna go. Does Richo go with the ultra high-tension double straight-arm group on the seat for the entire segment? The club’s media manager made sure to diffuse things a little by offering up a still-subdued Richo to SEN the morning after. The conversation sounded like Robbo, Huddo, and Scottyo Lucaso were all pretty subdued themselves, or perhaps Robbo didn’t want to upset him further ahead of Monday.
We’ve been waiting 51 years for our second premiership. First things first; we’re going to have to wait another four or five months to bring some more class and quality into the club. Until then, there might only be so much Richo can do.