Melbourne Posts

Hour after hour

Round 21, 2017
Melbourne 6.3, 9.6, 10.9, 14.12 (96)
St Kilda 1.1, 4.4, 8.11, 10.12 (72)
Crowd: 53,115 at the MCG, Sunday, August 13th at 1.10pm

Early this year Richo said development for this team in 2017 might not necessarily be reflected in a better win-loss ratio than 2016. Some key elements the group needed to improve on included consistency, the gap between best and our worst, and performances on the road in particular.

It seems like we’re forever playing whack-a-mole at Saints for problems (i.e. excuses), whether it’s over an extended period or on a certain day. Too many injuries throughout 2004, 2005 and 2006, adjusting to a new coach in 2007 and 2008, can’t kick straight on Grand Final Day in 2009. And so on.

But when we look at the record books (i.e. AFL Tables, FootyWire, etc.), they will show that for much of this season our own worst enemy was ourselves. For as long as football is played, sure, goalkicking will remain something of an issue. Somewhere between the insane pressure of being out on the ground and in the game, and having to get your body up for another effort after a raised period of intensity and adrenalin in the moment preceding it, players will struggle to get everything right. How much is too much? Grand Final Day 2009 was too much, and this year was too much.

How fitting it was that our goalkicking proved to be a major undoing on the day that our season effectively ended, after months of frustration and post-match press conferences of Richo saying the players “are working on it”.

That’s not to take anything away from Melbourne, by the way. For most of the day they worked harder to provide numbers for each other in tight and across the ground, to provide movement, were simply cleaner with their ball use and for the most part took their chance. They were good enough to keep their heads when faced with giving away a 40-point lead in time-on of the second quarter, and keep attacking after the newly-haired Membrey put us within a goal early in the last quarter.

Even on our winning days this year, kicking straight would cost us percentage that right now is the exclamation point on our inferior win-loss record. Never mind kicking ourselves out of the West Coast game. Want a maiden win over the wooden spooners to be? Have 14.23. Dominant win over the Pies? Enjoy 9.15. We all laughed when Josh Bruce ran into goal and hit the post – we’d coasted to 19.16 and a 75-point win over a broken Hawthorn. Not only had we wrenched back our season, but were looking sure things for a top-couple pick in the draft.

A few months and 12.13, 12.17, 14.19, 12.17 again, 7.15, and 8.13 and Robbie Gray later, here we are. Josh Bruce missing very close shots at goal twice, shanking a big set shot and losing the ball from his bounce as he ran into goal in the last minutes was the Champs-Élysées stage of our relevance to the 2017 season.

We will bemoan giving away a hefty lead early yet again, but inaccuracy and its podium-placed teammate Kicking Into Attack again proved far too telling far again.

There was also the lack of DARE® Iced Coffee that has underpinned so many of our poor starts, but that might not have looked so bad but for some awful entries going forward. We’d already hit the Down the Line button within the opening minutes but a few times we caught them on the break, only for Weller, Sav, Ross and Dunstan to not be able to kick it to the advantage of Gresham – Dunstan’s kick across the square was particularly awful – Sinclair and Membrey (or in Weller’s case, just the goals themselves). We’re not even talking hitting up leads here, simply goalside would have been enough, but the trend was to have the ball fall short each time. There’s the good kind of consistency and the bad kind of consistency.

A turnover from a bemusing-at-best Bruce handball (after a questionable mark from a questionable Seb Ross kick) the finished with a goal to Pedersen summed things up for the quarter, but it was just a taste of things to come from Bruce. This was before the third quarter onslaught of Gresham, Billings, Membrey et al. missing shots.

Seb Ross had had 14 touches at quarter time but it felt like several too many. Maybe he was feeling for Jobe, and he was working hard but an inexperienced James Harmes reflected the intent and composure that Melbourne brought by kicking three goals himself and honouring the hard work higher up. There is a tipping point at which having a whole bunch of looks forward doesn’t matter if you’re not going to kick straight or use the ball properly.

Since the Port Adelaide game particularly, but built on a solid base of uncompleted marks throughout the year, I think Bruce has come to represent working incredibly hard for little reward. The Port game was a great example – wet conditions, tough for a tall forward, interstate and a hostile crowd, and formidable opposition for a St Kilda-style dramatic finish (i.e. heartbreaking loss). but he gave contest after contest even though the delivery wasn’t great (also ran into the post taking a mark and Membrey kicked the goal from the spill). However, he finished with 0.3 in a game that we were 2.12 when the three-quarter time siren went, and still 8.13 by the end.

The Hawthorn miss will be played for years to come, and the mood was positive enough for Richo to crack a gag in the post-match following the Richmond game about him inventing ways to miss goals. His 2.5 was comical for the close-to goal shots that he missed, but from that point it’s just become tiring, so much so that the whole thing bent back on itself and became funny in a because-we-hate-everything-and-ourselves way when he fluffed the bounce running into goal in that late play. Because last week he missed the set shot from in front when the game was there to be won, and today he missed another in the third quarter, alongside a kick out of mid-air within a metre or two of the goal-line that went across the face rather than directly into the goalmouth and was instead fired into a Melbourne defender’s hand. They were sandwiched between a poke from a couple of metres out in the pocket in the second quarter that went across the face, and the bounce later on. The moment had well and truly come and gone by then.

Bruce finished with five marks but at what point do we hold Richo accountable for his public reasoning for dropping Bruce earlier this season? It was because he wasn’t completing his marks and not kicking goals. At what point does a player become a liability, no matter how hard they obviously work, no matter how they’re able to will themselves to the next contest even though they’re risking perhaps another missed mark or a missed shot, no matter how much it obviously affects him in the moment afterwards. I hope so, so much that he comes good and that this is part of the malady that has afflicted the wider team in season 2017. He’s not the only one guilty of missing shots at goal, but he’s certainly the best at it. If the players willed themselves at contests as much as he did we’d be much higher on the ladder right now.

One of the few highlights of the first quarter was the backline. Carlisle ran out in the long sleeves for the third week in a row, but the genuinely excellent conditions sadly saw him swap those for the short-sleeve version at half time. Either way, he was again a huge presence in defence, and as the game turned our way and we pressed higher he still remained incredibly difficult to get past, wherever he was. That we weren’t at least eight goals down at half-time said as much about how poorly we were beaten across the ground and how poor our use was generally, as much as it did about Carlisle and Roberton holding the defence together under a barrage, with White and Brown in support.

Hotline’s willingness to drop back and get involved in tight and plug space in the defensive 50 felt more like the result of his. Usually if we or him is playing well (whichever comes first) his mark count is higher because leading from the forward half to the ball, and he’s been thrown back because the coaches hasn’t quite figured out what to do with him or we needed someone who can kick an Australian Rules football competently using it off half-back because we’re on the back foot and aren’t playing with enough DARE® Iced Coffee. Rarely did we even look like wanting to try and take the ball through the middle.

It wasn’t until he was lining up for goal in the second quarter that from the broadcast side I realised his face looked, uh, different. In our frustration and disappointment – general descriptions again, but I think valid – we probably didn’t appreciate his game enough. Yes, that was made more difficult given he kicked 1.3, including hitting the post in that third quarter from a set shot, a running chance in the last quarter (a reminder of Schneider at the other end in the 2009 Grand Final) and then one completely out on the full later as the game hit Officially Dicked status, but FFS he had 30 pretty decent possessions all across the ground with one eye and a face twice the size of his regular face. Like Bruce, we can only hope this a team affliction that he’s been hit with (today Gresham was on board with them also), because he’s kicked 20.32 this year. The pick 3 that we all felt so good about using on him when the final siren went last week feels shakier right now, but at least this time he’s got a decent excuse. Here’s to another decent pre-season for him, and that hopefully someone tells his hair it’s not 2006 anymore.

What the hell else is there to say? Mav didn’t turn up in a game that was begging for someone that thinks that they’re a huge presence to make an impact. Gresham didn’t come to meet the moment when we was often has hunted it. Ross tried but just couldn’t. Gilbert battled hard. Sinclair’s reaction to his mopping up of Bruce’s mess was actually funny in a borderline pathetic moment. Of course, it was St Kilda that a team like Melbourne would meet in that situation – their biggest game for more than a decade – and win in front of their home fans. In which Cam Pedersen and James Harmes and Mitch Hannan would all have such pronounced impacts, and which Angus Brayshaw would come back and play a genuinely effective game, and be involved in head clash that took our player out for the day.

I simply could not begrudge Melbourne or their supporters anything from yesterday, or whatever positives they might get out of this season. The best of this game – and perhaps the best of humanity (broad, overreaching statement I know) – is built on empathy. For every time we acknowledge how hard or tiring or frustrating or draining or heartbreaking it is being a St Kilda person, that should give us the understanding to be able to truly revel in great moments for the game itself if we can understand and acknowledge the lean times those that also follow this game might have endured. Until last year, the Bulldogs were our closest analogue, and their achievements should have been something we could nod towards and celebrate. Melbourne has now taken that mantle. Until 1964 they were a powerhouse, but given that year saw their last premiership, not to mention how and against who; their record since then and the depths their fans have somehow made it through since 2007 have brought them more into line with our own overall. Their last win of the pre-2007 era came against us in the 2nd Elimination Final of 2006, with a scoreline of 13.12 to 10.12. Their first loss of 2007-present era was against us in that season’s opening match, and in the weekend’s quasi-Elimination Final they beat us with a score of 14.12 to 10.12. That last bit says fuck all, really. But I’m a sucker for that kind of garbage and it was on my mind at the time.

And where does having empathy leave us as a football club? Right where we fucking were. Be disappointed, be angry, be exhausted by another lost season. Next year, the club is officially on notice, from the players, to the coaches, to the board. The “Road to 2018” plan has us making the top four next year. Anything short of that has to be answered to by everyone at the club. That doesn’t make it better if St Kilda doesn’t finish in the top four, of course – it’s essentially gone unchecked for 144 years anyway. Maybe I’m feeling like I’m at a point in my life that I need to just pull the reigns on what I hope to get from this club.

I remember a chorus of Saints fans singing the club song on the bridge following the win against Richmond. We were sitting inside the four at half-time, and were only a few cheap conceded goals away by game’s end from at least being able to enjoy a spot in there that night, ahead of the Sunday games. Having already strung together several wins that had us in the same position earlier, it felt like we’d reached a new normal. That we were really challenging now. As I walked from the ground towards the city yesterday afternoon the chiming of the Federation Bells sounded “It’s A Grand Old Flag”. It wasn’t as loud as that crowd on the bridge, but it was much more poignant and definitive. We have more waiting to do.

*Heaps of symbolism*

Round 1, 2017
St Kilda 6.2, 7.8, 9.9, 13.12 (90)
Melbourne 2.3, 9.4, 15.7, 18.12 (120)
Crowd: 36,249 at Etihad Stadium, Saturday, March 25th at 4.35pm

In short: it’s one game and there are other rounds and seasons. In long: Here is way too much ranting, featuring probably way too much symbolism.

Ok, so.

How did you feel late on the Saturday night of Round 1, 2004?

If you’re a St Kilda supporter and old enough to have been aware of what was going on, then the answer was probably “pretty fucking great”.

The Saints had trounced the Cats in the far more valuable sequel to the Wizard Cup Final a fortnight earlier, and had stamped themselves as the most fashionable new team with the brightest future in the league. After a few lean development years – with the 1997 Grand Final ensuring the hallmarks of the Saints were retained going into the new millennium – the St Kilda Football Club looked set to be transformed by one of the most exciting and damaging collection of players in the league. The future looked good, and it looked endless.

We look back now and note (and feel, of course) that the Cats added three premierships to their cabinet since and have only dipped out of the top eight twice. Meanwhile, we continue to build the mythology around 1966, and theoretically the club is only now barely coming out of the rebuild following the heartbreaks of the GT and Ross Lyon eras.

It’s worth noting that the idea of the Geelong-St Kilda rivalry seems to have been mostly shed by Geelong and its fans. They moved onto bigger and better things. The notion still exists for us, but mostly as a representation of what never was. The 2004 meetings in particular between the teams promised both a long-term rivalry between two burgeoning juggernauts, and the likely ending of two long premiership droughts. The 2009 Grand Final appeared written to deliver both the epic showdown that had been promised for so many years – it certainly did, and was a fitting end to the decade – and given what had transpired during the season, that second element also: a premiership for St Kilda to go with Geelong’s own drought-breaker two years before.

When the Saints turned the 2010 finals series on its head over Geelong in the 2nd Qualifying Final, it put the Cats on a collision course with the Magpies in a Preliminary Final. Their comprehensive loss and the departure of Mark Thompson looked certain to bring what was already an incredible era for their club to a close. Somehow, they backed the whole thing up and won a third premiership in five years, as we endured a painful, cold come down from coming so close over a long time – don’t discount the added wear and tear of 2004, 2005 and 2008 (not to mention the 2006 ride and its fallout). It was apparent that everyone from the fans through to the players had been heavily scarred.

Geelong’s story was ultimately written with a key but much reduced role from St Kilda compared to what was in the initial drafts of the script. Sydney ended their 72-year drought as the rivalry built; for the young St Kilda team that has been put together over the past several years the Bulldogs have delivered in similar time after 62 years (both the longest droughts in the game at the time). Melbourne has emerged as the Geelong rival equivalent to the team put together featuring Riewoldt, Hayes, Ball, Dal Santo, Koschitzke, et al. Again, two founding teams with similar premiership droughts, except the pairing of 1963 and 1966 is now 1964 and 1966.

In the time since that opening round of 2004, those Melbourne and St Kilda waits have become the longest in the game. Sydney, the Cats and the Bulldogs all had longer droughts at that point; all have saluted since. It’s worth mentioning alone for anyone who cares about historical coincidences and miscellany, but this is all an important reminder for the fall-out of Saturday evening.

I’m sitting here running through this shoddy exercise because we now know that we will see My Favourite Hair in the AFL take the field again. It wasn’t until after we’d left our new seats on Level 2 well after the siren that I checked Twitter for any updates that I found the first pieces of positive news starting to filter out of the club. Until that point we’d sweated in the humidity, been wowed briefly before being systematically overwhelmed, and then finally crushed when Riewoldt went down. Otherwise this would be mostly be a hastily cobbled requiem for not just the career of arguably the best Saint, but an era in itself.

Instead, it’s firmly about the future. The Geelong comparison matters when trying to process what the hell happened after quarter time on Saturday. I’m not saying there will be a period of time in the near future in which we’ll win three premierships in five years and watch Melbourne flounder. Likewise, I’m not saying Melbourne will miss out in the way we did over the last 13 seasons.

Of course, there was a huge build-up to this one, an opening match between the two most fashionable new kids with the brightest futures with what appeared to be clear demarcation points in their narratives – Melbourne with a new coach and about to step into the finals; St Kilda improving with a coach that had grown with them and about to step in the finals.

The fact that we hadn’t lost to Melbourne since the 2006 2nd Elimination Final – a very dirty night for us for a lot of reasons – is only an anomaly and one that will be quickly forgotten. It didn’t mean we won a premiership in that time, nor was it the reason Melbourne and its fans suffered so much in that decade. Their win right now symbolically says plenty and at this point in time might enhance a pending rivalry, but it isn’t what it will be ultimately remembered for (should that rivalry indeed emerge). What does Round 1, 2004 mean for Geelong fans? They wouldn’t particularly remember it, nor care for it if they did.

If we’re good enough then the players will learn from it and be better for it, and it will be a small step in much, much bigger journey. I joke that I have Melbourne and us pencilled in for the 2019 Grand Final, but for now that’s all it amounts to. There are no facts in the future.

***

What caused the turnaround after the first break? I was sweating profusely from the comfort of our level two seats; I have no idea how the players were feeling. But Melbourne ran out the three quarters incredibly well, all the more considering Joel Smith (as far as I know, no relation to Joel Smith) had his game ended in the first quarter, leaving the Dees a player short for the bulk of the match. To put it succinctly, it seemed there was simply little movement from our players after quarter time both with and without the ball; Richo’s post-match description of the players as “reactionary” is probably a more accurate way of putting it. But why did it happen? Surely you don’t train all pre-season and give the JLT a good shake to just run out of gas 40 minutes into Round 1? We were underdone for Round 1 last year and still managed to play 85 minutes of good footy interstate.

The midfield was smashed – Max had it all over Man’s Best Friend host Tom Hickey at the throw-ups courtesy of Adele, and Melbourne’s mids racked up ridiculous numbers as they worked in numbers together around just about every contest. Even when Hickey won a hit-out the Melbourne mids were first at the fall. In fact it took the otherwise-unseen Seb Ross in the final quarter to actually win a decent hit-out against Max from a stoppage, and from there the Dees still ran away with it and kicked a goal. Their pressure was good when we had the ball, their run and spread was good when they had it, at stoppages and in open play.

Hickey was a shadow of the player that found the ball 29 times in the final practice match, and a shadow of the ruckman that had been one of the few to handle Max decently in the past couple of years. Hickey wasn’t the only one in that category, and Max just might have taken another massive step in his career, but you can only write that kind of thing off so many times.

Melbourne’s approach in expanding their midfield numbers with their high draft picks is looking like it will pay off handsomely. Never mind Viney and Stretch being handy father-son picks; the input of Oliver, Lewis, Vince, Brayshaw, Petracca, Neal-Bullen, Jetta and Salem reflected shrewd drafting and recruiting. Steven needs someone else to breakaway from traffic, Steele had a good debut, Armitage might have peaked, Ross was nowhere, Dunstan likewise. It would have been nice to see Billings and Gresham at more stoppages, but Billings’ game in particular suffered once we were shut down in close.

Petracca got to enjoy a couple of goals (including one immediately after Riewoldt was taken off) and found the ball 23 touches, and his celebration in the third quarter of his goal was the first roar in this conflict proper. The comparisons between him and Paddy will be endless – do 21-possession, three-goal games from Hogan influence the debate at all? For all the rumours Petracca’s character issues had him fall behind Paddy, we might be waiting a longer to be feeling OK about our Billings/Bont and and Paddy/Petracca draft choices in successive years. The 2001 selection in hindsight is enough to make any Saint go the big vom, and not enough people are aware we chose McEvoy at number nine with Dangerfield going 10 in 2007.

Paddy was a late out this time; rumoured to be a hamstring. Richo described it as hamstring “awareness”, and introduced the “fit to play”/”fit to perform” debate into more public footy lexicon. Last year Paddy was a late withdrawal for our first game against the Dees as well all felt spooked by the debut of Petracca, and the inclusion Membrey kicked five. Acres won a Rising Star nomination with 28 touches and two goals, but Membrey’s disappeared since the first few minutes of the JLT series and Blacres apparently can’t hit targets and so suited up in the black, yellow and blue alongside Paddy yesterday. Lonie was the in for Paddy; obviously they wanted some pressure but Jesus Christ I don’t know if Lonie realistically passes the disposal accuracy test. He’s still somewhere between Milne and the worst of Schneider – tries to do a lot, has a wayward left foot when the goals beckon. He needs to spend more time with Gresham, who with three goals was one of our best. His solo effort from the Gresham pocket (with a cameo from Membrey) was all class and composure, something that was severely lacking for the balance of the match.

As for the draft concern in Billings, his race with the Bont is over. Marcus has already won a best and fairest in a premiership season. The external pressure and comparisons are over. Billings is now left to do what he was drafted to do and in the Corporate Name Community Series appeared to have stepped up, and he kicked a brilliant long-range goal to open our game and season’s account. As I said before, his game appeared to be reliant on the rest of the team’s, and he was drafted specifically because he is creative, not to compliment our inside mids in the event that they’re winning their battle against the opposition’s. Until Melbourne turned things around, he was very busy across the ground, but that’s not enough. Hindsight is the proverbial USC eyesight reference value, but we could have had Bontempelli and Petracca. If I’m going to listen to myself though, Billings hasn’t turned 22 and Paddy hasn’t turned 21.

Richo will be facing his own tests in the coming weeks, probably for the first time in his career. A trip to Perth will quickly shift the players’ focus over to rectifying whatever the hell it was that went on after they got on a plane last year. No Riewoldt for a week or two (after all that – lol), Paddy should come in after three goals in the first half as the Zebras coasted through a practice match against Port Melbourne; Rowan Marshall kicked five and My Future Favourite Player Josh Battle four but for varying reasons don’t expect to see them any time soon. Sinclair found the ball 27 times in three quarters and looks an obvious replacement for one of Wright or Lonie, although Lonie led our tackle count with six. Wright is more hardened than the other smaller forward-half players but did fark all and I feel as though the others (Lonie included) have a higher ceiling than he does.

Carlisle and Brown look cute wearing 2 and 22 respectively and watching them work together to cover off players when Melbourne’s mids charged forward again showed they’re already building an understanding. There’s obviously work to be done individually and from the perspective of settling into the team, and Dempster might well be required given the task at hand against the Eagles, but just give them a second. I’d also hope we’re in a position to not have to select players based on the likelihood of our mids getting towelled again. Both Brown and Wright had knocks to the head so there might be an easy reasoning to take them out for next week.

We got a small taste of games actually meaning something in the back half of last year, but this time we’re starting fresh and (almost) anything can happen. To strip away the symbolism this result may well bode as very important come the end of season, with both us and the Dees expected to be jostling for a top eight spot. The build-up to the game certainly was a welcome reminder of what it means to partake in a relevant game of Australian Rules football. Riewoldt’s four goals in the absence of Paddy and effective games from Bruce and Membrey was a stark reminder of how important he still is for us. We really felt we had to confront a post-Nick Riewoldt world for a time on Saturday, and I don’t think we were quite ready. Certainly not at the moment. Geary opened his captaincy by dropping a clean mark on his own. He got a bit of the ball but I’m not sure exactly what he did; although I’m not sure what anyone did really apart from a few.

Assuming we are actually stepping up from last year, I didn’t know if I was ready for us to be good again. But I won’t hold my breath. The 2010 Replay was seven years ago now, which is the same distance that 2004 is from 1997. But I really don’t think anyone was or should have been expecting a 2004 leap, despite us finishing on top of the JLT series ladder and going in against our up and coming rivals in Round 1 (to throw in a final 2004 comparison). It was an incredibly deflating experience being at the game, but now that Riewoldt is OK how do we feel? A lot happens in footy, and we can always read too much into it.

But I know we’ll meet again, maybe a whole lot

Round 17, 2016
St Kilda 3.3, 8.6, 10.12, 15.20 (110)
Melbourne 6.2, 6.5, 9.7, 11.8 (74)
Crowd: 25,322 at Etihad Stadium, Sunday, July 17th at 3.20pm

This year I’ve found myself being a little (well, quite) fatalistic and cynical when it comes to how I think the rest of the season will pan out. I mentioned last week that I got it a little wrong, immediately anyway, with my dour summation of the Crows debacle, but it’s worth pointing out again that the win over the Cats being followed by Rubbish at Carrara – Election Day Special proved what we knew about the Saints as much as proved nothing at all; we already knew that we’re lower-to-middling, inconsistent developing team that will win some games it shouldn’t and lose some games it shouldn’t.

Whilst North’s collapse for now has opened up eighth spot a little, even after the win today we are still facing an uphill battle to overcome that gap and have to really be playing above ourselves for an extended period. Whilst some of our opponents, namely the Bulldogs, North and Sydney present the biggest roadblocks to a top-eight finish, we’ve proven to be our own worst enemy across periods of games, whole quarters, and whole matches.

The last time we lost to Melbourne I was in my final months of school and we suffered the ignominy of coming off blowing two Preliminary Finals and then losing as the sixth-placed home team in an Elimination Final, having narrowly missed out on a top-four finish. Luke Ball was our captain, Grant Thomas was our coach and Aaron Hamill was somehow still out there. The 10-year gap between losses to Melbourne doesn’t particularly represent anything – whilst the club experienced a wistful period of incredible, buoyant, ultimately sad moments in that time it’s really just a reflection of where these two sides specifically have been in a specific number of years.

It’s more relevant to look at recent and current form and make-up of the two lists, which Paul Roos almost blithely talked about during the week as perhaps being the foundation for the two sides playing off against each other in Grand Finals in the coming years. Should our development go as planned, as we had the Cats last time around looking to break a lengthy premiership drought we’ll probably have the Bulldogs and Demons this time to contend with (not to mention the GWS juggernaut, but no-one is a supporter of the AFL). A Melbourne vs. St Kilda Grand Final (for some reason when I picture the 2019 Grand Final it’s us in our clash jumper, hopefully what we have at the moment but probably not) will be a sad fucking day for the club and its supporters on the wrong end of the result. Maybe if our streak against the Dees was still going right up until a Grand Final date then St Kilda supporters would be puking at the prospect of playing off for a premiership with that as one of the key talking points of the week. You know we’re the kind of club to give it up when it counts the most.

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Matt on his way to catching ‘em all™

The 3.20pm Sunday timeslot necessitates that the AFL orders the roof to be closed at the Corporate Dome, which essentially means your weekend ends by 3pm (or whatever time you choose to walk into the ground), and earlier if the game begins in the early afternoon and the roof is closed anyway. Unfortunately it was a beautiful sunny winter’s afternoon but I guess in the 21st Century there’s no way at all we can embrace that . I described it the other week as being on the set of a TV show rather than at the footy, and I’ll stick by that. If the AFL is so keen to keep Etihad even though it won’t really actually revamp it or realign it so the sun isn’t awkwardly placed – which seems to be the reason of choice for people who don’t like the roof open – then we’re stuck with the TV studio rather than the footy ground.

For this week though it the augmented reality aspect was ramped up – even the club couldn’t resist embracing the Pokémon Go craze and starting its own hashtag for the game, encouraging the fans to “help us capture some Pokémon – both inside and outside the ground”, which had me worried that if things went south for one tam we’d have half the crowd trying to catch all the Oddishes, Venonats, Psyducks and Magikarp that were in and around the ground. Apparently the Snorlax hanging out around Crown didn’t make its way up Spencer Street.

There were two Melbourne supporters on the 55 tram into the ground, and as per usual just myself as the sole Saints representative (although there has been a Saints-supporting couple on my tram once or twice this season). I know I mentioned that the slight opening for eighth position before; right now I think it’s in a scuffle with that feeling we’ve had over the past couple of weeks that the season is in wind-down mode. The next few weeks will tell us more but the weight of probability is with the latter winning out. The tram ride in was appropriately subdued; more about looking out to the whatever was passing by bathed in very nice sunshine.

To the Savoy again for pre-match burgers and drinks, and for Evan and Matt a chance to go through their Pokemon strategy for the final time. We took in a bit of Carlton and West Coast (before it got interesting), which was taking pace under the eye of US VP Joe Biden and thousands of secret service agents, which I’m sure made up most of the 26,000-plus that were at the MCG. It looked like West Coast were going to sneak into fourth on percentage, even with the GWS barrage to come in Brisbane later in the day, but the Blues at least made things vaguely interesting for the VP, but not for anyone else as it shut out any chance of any other spots in the eight being available any time soon.

Matt caught an Oddish as we crossed Spencer Street, I got a free Dare Iced Coffee® and we were soon enough parked inside our Aisle 32 seats with relatively minimum fuss – neither of these teams’ fans like going to the opposing Melbourne grounds for away matches so the 25,000 crowd didn’t present any difficulties, apart from the club’s bottom line.

It was only seconds into the match when Hotline announced his return marking right near goal and then missing from the line. The Dees set the tone for the quarter by cutting through the middle in numbers and with space up forward Garlett marked and goaled. Billings looked set to at least partially atone for it with quick hands to Eminem in the next forward foray, but Marshall ran in and missed another easy shot. Membrey couldn’t complete a one-on-one mark when it came back in, and the Dees were again. Petracca, the man set to terrorise for the next 12-15 years, marked over Ross for their second. He’d have two goals himself by the end of the quarter and set up Jack Watts for another, and he could have had a third by half-time but hit the post from relatively close range. The 2014 draft decisions start to tick over in your head in these moments, just as the 2013 draft choices will on Saturday night as we pit a casual Billings against Brownlow winner-to-be Bont. For the time being, it was looking like just the perfect day to have a whole lot of Melbourne supporters around us in the St Kilda members.

Mav Weller had started strongly this week, involving himself up the ground and kicking our first. I say this because his game against the Cats and Essendon were punctuated more by periods in each that were small but had huge say in the outcome of the game. This week he looked as if he’d set himself to effect the play more consistently. Like last week, it was him and Membrey that were having a say in the front half despite the Demons’ mids having their way with our own. Skunk’s first goal came at the fall of the ball from Acres’, uh, soft hands, and swooped on it and bulleted a goal from 45 metres out.

Billings began pushing up and looking more purposeful across the back half, but still the ball movement was a little stagnant, just as the pressure placed on the Dees’ players across the ground was stilted; getting caught drawn to the player with the ball and allowing for their teammate in supporter too much space on the outside.

A short period saw Gilbert dribble a ball out of traffic on half-back to turn it over, then collect the ball from a sloppy Bruce handball amidst the resulting re-entry and send a slick pass to Hickey on the wing. In one of Hickey’s rare blunders for the night he waited too long the option presented further ahead by Roo had dried up. Shortly after that the ball landed in Hogan’s hands as he ominously outbodied Dempster and finished the polished work from further up. From the centre bounce Petracca took it out of the middle and found Hogan. Melbourne with a six-goal quarter and looking to be doing far too easily through the middle, and Hogan was set for a day with an undersized backline to follow the seven he kicked against it last time we played.

The possession count was clearly in Melbourne’s favour by game’s end and so that stat ultimately only said so much, but at quarter time a lot of individual players’ numbers were pertinent. Jack Viney had 14 touches, with Harmes and Jetta 12 apiece. Our engine room was looking incredibly lean meanwhile: Steven had four, Ross had four, Armo just three, and it showed. Hickey led our own count with seven then six each to Membrey and Billings, as well as Dunstan who in his 50th has looking like the most productive mid.

It looked like the Dees were just a goal or two away from breaking open the game for the first part of the last quarter. Gresham had been unsighted but made sure everyone saw him by slipping over in the middle with the ball before redeeming himself soon after, dancing around two opponents on the arc and slotting a deft left-foot pass to Hotline on the lead. Billings was continuing to push up the ground and a goal next to his name would have been well-deserved but he missed the set shot.

Not until later in the term, when Jack Steven was involved at two centre clearances did we look like the team that, well, should have run out much more comfortable winners than we did. The pressure began to lift throughout the quarter and a string of near-free kicks in two separate passages got us within touching distance; the first through the middle when Armo’s tackle on Brayshaw went unrewarded, but Steven was at the fall of the ball to get it off to Minchington who released the ball to Sinclair, and the nicely-haired inclusion sent a long ball perfectly weighted for Membrey to come over the top and take a mark in front of goal. The second came from the maniacal pressure we were hoping would appear in the front half that saw three tackles across the pockets that all could have been paid for holding the ball; in the end it was the third that was given to Joey in the pocket and his snap did the hard work in the minute prior justice.

Whilst the game had been wrested back in our favour it was still looking for someone to stamp it and make it official going into half-time. Seb had stepped up and Steven had had some moments but they alone weren’t going to do enough to put us in a position of dominance. Like last week at a critical point, sort-of-potential future captain Jarryn Geary again stepped up and again proved keyboard warriors like myself wrong about his worth to the team. They were his first goals of the year and they came in the last couple of minutes of the quarter, backing himself to recognise where an opportunity was to push up very high up from his usual position and make something of it. Billings would have to settle for a deft goal assist to the 0.3 he’d finish with, with incredibly quick hands to Geary for the second which he kicked in much the same fashion as his first – off a few steps from just beyond 40 metres out. The goals don’t cancel out all the shanks with the ball which we in the stands are more privy to noticing, and the praise he gets from Richo and the players are for acts that we probably wouldn’t immediately recognise without being privy to the game plan. For all the stick that Geary cops from the stands the reaction from the crowd (the players aside) I think said a lot more about what we really do think of him.

The back-to-back goals were out of Mav’s playbook from the Cats and Bombers games. Melbourne’s head start at the first change and comeback late in the third necessitated a big play though. Mav reprised those critical efforts of recent weeks with something similar in the last quarter and was part of two important goals after Melbourne got within a kick, more than atoning for the relatively easy miss that was one of many that let the Demons back in during the third quarter (although he did kick a great set shot goal in the same quarter). Following Big Max’s goal early in the last he charged at White, who had cut off a pass just forward of centre, to set the ball free and then came back to the contest and dived forward to thump the ball out to Acres on the way to Wright kicking a long ball to Gresham in the pocket. Gresham read the fall best off of his own marking contest, and smartly handballed it over his shoulder to My Favourite Hair in the goalsquare in the AFL for a steadier. Mav shortly after combined with Acres, with the latter playing a focal point role in attack in the last quarter and grabbed the ball out of a contest after he spilled a tough mark and and working it under pressure to Mav who, like his first goal last week, was coming past at the perfect time close to goal and slammed through this third goal for the day. (Mav also pushed up to be part of the slick hands work with Newnes out wide to set up Riewoldt for another set shot miss.)

Membrey was the one who was the lead-up forward that took the mark from Joey’s kick out of the middle and sent it long to Acres for that Mav goal. The players really did make a beeline to Acres in the celebration (Mav looked slightly confused when players were rushing past him to Blake but soon joined in). Acres’ game at the moment is perhaps along the lines of a Gary Rohan, and it means he offers some real versatility across the ground if needed when we have our full complement of tall forwards and some shuffling during the game is required.

All of this came after quite the scare. Richo said the third quarter was the best of the year, and he was just about right – the only thing that made it arguable was the 2.6 return and the final few minutes, which combined let Melbourne right back into the contest. Mav, Membrey and Riewoldt were all guilty of missing shots that should have blown the lead out well beyond five goals by the final change, and we missed a chance for a huge reprieve when Roo did his part for redemption with a herculean effort to touch Hogan’s kick on the goal line late in the third quarter as Melbourne charged, and Membrey hit the post on the siren to reward it and the efforts earlier in the quarter.

It was Membrey who for the second week in a row had been the anchor in the forward half when the rest of the team offered very few clear shining lights. Whilst he hasn’t really turned things on in the few games we’ve played against top opposition since he came into the side in Round 6 for the first Melbourne game – his three against the then-undefeated Kangaroos his best against real quality – his last couple of weeks have certainly been a step in that direction. It’s one thing to capitalise on the rest of your teammates’ good work, but it’s another to really dredge something out of what they do when by and large the team is up against it. Again, his input came from different avenues – his first swooping on a ball off Acres’ hands, the strong contested mark over the top of his opponent, his leading up outside of the arc to be link the back-half to the front for the Acres and Weller combination. He finished with 10 marks, a good reflection of that aspect of his game.

More than merely a special mention must go to our own Stephen Merchant, Tom Hickey for his performance around the ground. Big Max was quelled for much of the day and Hickey played his part in traffic when the ball was moving on his way to a career-best 21 possessions; Richo said that his game almost added another player out there for us in general play. For what it’s worth he ended up with the full compliment of 10 AFL Coaches’ Association Award votes, and this year he’s completely established himself as not just our number one ruckman, but one of our key players.

Like the key goals from half-backs in Geary and Joey in the second quarter, of all people it was Roberton who took it on themselves to hit the scoreboard in a key moment. It came from a simple enough mark just outside 60 metres, but everything around him (and including him) seemed to be going in slow motion and in his lackadaisical way he pounced on the opportunity, ran off and kicked a long goal to effectively seal the game. As my Dad (and Leigh Matthews) pointed out, that the pressure was that good across the entire team allowed those guys to push up, knowing that an opportunity would most likely be created. That’s a lot of trust to have in your teammates.

A quick look over the stats sheet would tell you Steven, Ross and Armo particularly ended up with relatively muted numbers; a reflection of how even the team performance was across the entire match. Of course there was Membrey, Mav and Geary who had moments or output that would be imprinted in our minds a little more than others, or that would be better fodder for the highlights reel. Luke Dunstan was probably our most consistently-involved midfielder for the first half when things were really tough, and his goal in the final seconds was a fitting finish to his 50th game. But just about every player made some contribution in some way; right down to D-Mac who threw in a few Geary shanks of his own but did well to temper our future nemesis Petracca in the second half.

The 14 wins in a row against Melbourne counts for nought, really. As Roos pointed to during the week, these are two teams that all going well will share a very strong and potentially historic rivalry in the coming years – and if so then most likely in a ménage à trois involving the Bulldogs; effectively a double-headed version of our Geelong rivalry of this decade (and perhaps into the next). Hogan only finished with the lone goal, Petracca went quiet, and Brayshaw will need to feel his way back at the top level, but these are the kinds of guys we’re probably going to have to get used to on the journey.

RedWhiteandBlack.com.au 2016 Best Player Votes – Round 16
Tom Hickey – 2
Tim Membrey – 2
Mav Weller – 2
Luke Dunstan – 1
Jarryn Geary – 1
Leigh Montagna – 1
Jack Steven – 1

Totals
Jack Steven – 30
Nick Riewoldt – 20
Seb Ross – 17
Tim Membrey – 15
Tom Hickey – 10
Leigh Montagna – 9
David Armitage – 8
Jade Gresham – 6
Jack Newnes – 6
Blake Acres – 5
Sam Fisher – 5
Mav Weller – 5
Jack Billings – 4
Josh Bruce – 4
Jarryn Geary – 4
Sam Gilbert – 4
Shane Savage – 4
Paddy McCartin – 2
Luke Delaney – 1
Sean Dempster – 1
Luke Dunstan – 1
Jack Sinclair – 1

Acres and Membrey do heaps of good stuff

Round 6, 2016
Melbourne 5.3, 8.3, 11.5, 15.6 (96)
St Kilda 3.4, 9.9., 17.11, 20.15 (135)
Crowd: 27,260 at Etihad Stadium, Saturday, April 30 at 1.45pm

So for all intents and purposes Saturday was to be the day that Melbourne broke two long-standing droughts – their first win against the Saints since 2006 and their first win at Etihad since 2007. Who else other than the Saints to provide such a wonderful opportunity for so much relief and joy in the one hit? Mmm yeah. *Edit* But it wasn’t until Tuesday morning after the game I realised that they’d knocked off the Giants at the Corporate Dome in the last game of last year, so I guess I was running on a distracting and distorting cocktail of cynicism and, uh, cynicism.

Our disappointing showing against GWS made the performances against Collingwood and the Hawks seem like distant memories and the Dees had won back-to-back games for the first time in half a decade and were ready to show they were taking the next step beyond the muddling, bumbling teams around them, including ourselves. The time was right.

To make things more poetic the build-up in the week featured the revelation that it was to be Christian Petracca’s first game, 18 months after being selected in pick number 2 and an ACL injury; more pointedly following much public toing and froing by Trout et al as to whether the Saints would pick him or Paddy McCartin at number 1 in the 2014 draft.

By that draft week I was completely sold on Petracca. He was the explosive midfield bull our midfield needed going into the future, with midfield depth one of our key concerns going forward although by the end of 2014 just about everything was a concern. Concensus seemed to be he would be our number one choice, too.

But Paddy didn’t have the Tom Boyd or Jonathan Patton wraps of key forwards that had gone number 1 before him, nor of the day’s other looming nemesis Jesse Hogan. When it leaked early in draft week we were going with Paddy I must admit I did have to readjust my excitement levels.

At this early stage, and through all the whispers and innuendo since draft time Paddy is considered to be the more professional of the two and the one with greater leadership qualities. At the very least, I feel more confident that he is the professional individual the club has touted him to be. It wasn’t really until a few moments in his few games this year to date that McCartin showed some really improved dynamics in his game – whether it was the pack-busting marks at full speed or the hard leads deft turns high up the ground. It’s a shame he’s found himself struggling to string several games together without some kind of injury happening. I know the the diabetes thing has been floating around a fair bit but again, for now anyway, that just seems to be innuendo and an easy shot at people professing to have some sort of.

But I always thought Petracca’s gamestyle and his bubbly/boyish/confident/whatever personality struck me as the kind of player that would tear us a new one forevermore, for as long as he was a Melbourne Dee and we were the St Kilda Football Club. Thirty-plus possessions and three goals each time to torment us for not picking him. I dare say we’ll always have “Ball ahead of Judd” in the back of our minds, not to mention he’s gone to a team that just might represent one of our biggest threats to a premiership should our long-term development go as planned.

And what did the Saints do this week? “Managed” Paddy out of the team, with the official line being he needed a week off after his hamstring and concussion hits so far this year. Poetically there was something cynical about this move, like our match committee fully expected Petracca was fully expected by the match committee to dominate and kick a sealing goal as Melbourne hit party time in the last, and they needed to protect Paddy from being out there and taking it personally after five good touches in the first quarter and then fading fast.

More pragmatically, he’s here for ideally a long time and so to see him “managed” this week shouldn’t be cause for too much concern for anyone, particularly considering the concussion wasn’t due to a Kosi-style haphazardness but rather a pack-busting mark going back with the ball telling of the type of player he is, which he followed up the week after a key moment in the game (albeit without the goal to finish).

After all that I’d nabbed Melboure at $1.80 after they opened up a little lighter. I couldn’t resist. They were due and we’d be shown up something royal the previous week. I certainly wasn’t expecting Paddy to have at least temporarily lost his spot by game’s end. But if they haven’t won at Etihad by the next time we play them in Round 17 then back I’ll be backing them again.

A couple of coffees at my de facto home/office McIvers North on a beautiful Melbourne autumn morning to get things moving and set up the mind for a day void of high hopes but rather a nice social outing in the Medallion Club with Matt and Evan. I left at 11.30; it was time to meet Matt early for beverages. “I’m off to watch St Kilda lose” were my parting words to owner Cath. She couldn’t care less either way but I needed to articulate it to someone somehow.

The Medallion Club doesn’t particularly hold good memories for me so our rare vantage point from the corporate seats just reinforced the feeling of dread and inevitability. A mid-2005 loss to a lowly Essendon that put us in crisis mode, but indeed turned around our season around; black hole losses to Richmond and West Coast as the 2014 season was lowered into the ground halfway through the year and then the Schneider poster special of last year against Essendon again.

Whilst they weren’t all day games in typical Corporate Concrete Dome fashion the roof had been closed every time I’d been there. Saturday was a beautiful Melbourne Autumn day featuring two teams with a combined 301 years of history and of course, the roof was closed. The word on the roof came through on the Twitter machine late in the morning whilst I was  on the tram in so I had ample time to ready myself to sit in a section that thought it had the weight of centuries of its own history behind it that the MCC actually does, alas it doesn’t have quite the outdated pomp which sees it employ elderly grumpy people in fun blazers who pine for the day of ladies’ tickets.

My afternoon plans of a no-stress but still deflating social outing were off to a comfortable start when Membrey took off where he left us in 2015 by not leading up to the ball and hitting it on the move from a good kick from 2018-2022 Premiership Captain Jack Newnes. This year the field kicking seems to be a lot more reliable – Newnes, Savage, Sinclair, Dunstan, Ross, maybe Steven; it’s not a total calamity with ball in hand this year around.

Either way, Hogan had not just the first but the first two goals within a few minutes and with typically no one in the corporate section of the Corporate Dome we’d settled in with our padded seats and drink holders. I’m probably being harsh on the Medallion Club here because on level two of the pocket opposite us there were several bays highlighting the disdain non Etihad-tenants hold for the stadium and the disdain Saints fans have for away games even at their home ground. Ticketek, or Ticketmaster, or whoever the fuck obviously didn’t even both releasing the seats to the public.

Things opened up after haphazard disposal a neat chain of Steven and my Favourite Hair in the AFL found Membrey who ended with our first goal but it was a rare clean moment early in the game. Roo and Bruce spoiled each other in a marking contest close to goal, went up the other end for Watts to miss. If Jack Watts had kicked a goal like then my cynicism alert would have exploded, but they’d end up 17 points up late in the first term with Bugg’s goal being annoying enough. No sign yet of a Petracca dominance though.

It was around this time Acres started to really get involved. After a few games where he’s racked up decent numbers but found himself straight back at the Zebras it’s’ safe to say he won’t be dropped this week. The closest St Kilda parallel is that he’s this generation’s Brendon Goddard; finding the ball all around the ground, able to generate play, make space and finish things off. He’s always looked like a natural footballer but yesterday he really showed it off. He was in right spots several times to be part of scoring chains; his reading of the ball in the pocket in from the short throw in in the second quarter and snap goal was a real highlight in a game in which his biggest influence came in the second and third quarters in which we really made our move.

If anything he looks more sure of himself now than Goddard did at this early point in his career. Goddard was one of the closest things we had to a whipping boy in the 2004/2005 tilt and whilst he was obviously very talented it was an exponential improvement upon coming back from the knee he did in early 2007 that gave him the reputation he has today. I’m certainly not saying he’ll be as good or whatnot, but for Saints fans the type of player Goddard was for us provides something of a template.

The fact that he was been able to come straight back into the team and play that kind of game – and finish with two goals the highest numbers of any Saint if you wanted some sort of empirical proof as to his influence – reflects his natural ability and that he’s willing to back himself despite the dual personal setbacks in a short space of time. A NAB Rising Star nomination to top things off and all of a sudden we’re feeling a lot better about the “other” early pick from the 2013 draft.

Blacres’ partner-in-crime who I thought who really got things moving as the game shifted gears in the second quarter was Jack Sinclair, who right now is probably our best small forward. Lonie might get his chance to come back into the team next week following three goals and 33 possessions for the Zebras but he had gone largely missing in the fortnight or so prior, and Minchington on the weekend probably ran out of a little steam as far as his current run in the seniors goes. His seven tackles last week against the Giant masked his small numbers otherwise but on Saturday he didn’t quite have the same presence off the ball. I don’t quite count Billings in here because he’s graduated to playing a more sophisticated role with forays high up the ground (though I’ll get that in a second).

It was just after Acres was involved before Dunstan’s nice finish that Sinclair helped to set up Roo and then kicked a great goal of his own, taking on the play off the 50 metre arc, and his snap goal in the third was very deft.

One thing he has done this year, in a similar vein to Billings, is press up the ground more. He’s not spending a heap of time up there but he seems to know when it’s required. His field kicking is probably underrated too, and his pressure off the ball is consistent. The more performances he churns out like this the more remarkable it is that we picked him up in a rookie draft because we’d already drafted his mate.

A surprise in a different sort of way is the continuing good form of Seb Ross, which for me has echoes of Josh Bruce’s breakout year last year simply because I never expected it to happen. Bruce looked and still does look like the last-second fill-in for your futsal team, whilst on the other hand Seb just looked like a B-grade midfielder with an unremarkable frame and a bad haircut. But so far this year Jobe’s cousin has made me look like the whinging blog hack that I am, finding plenty of the ball and using it very smartly whether it’s been in close (most of the time) or in space.

It was a game in which we didn’t particularly dominate the stoppages, despite Hickey mostly negating man of the moment Max Gawn, but rather created turnovers via pressure in general play, which Richo alluded to in the post-match presser. It’s where guys like Ross, Steven, Armo and Dunstan looked at their best, not mention Acres and Sinclair registering five tackles, and even Minchington also.

By the time they’d run out for the second half things had really clicked, and by the three-quarter time siren we’d kicked 14.7 in two quarters. With a clumsy Josh Bruce roaming around – albeit one that finished with three goals – and no McCartin the forward line was anchored by the evergreen Roo and, of all people, Tim Membrey.

Roo is, in a way, but not an totally accurate one, in Brownlow form. Multiple goals and 20-plus possessions every week should see you get votes every time, but I have no idea if he keep this up for a year. But what are you going to do, just begrudge for not being the incredibly dynamic, well-haired player he’s been so far this year? He’s getting it done all around the ground and if he can stay fit enough – and by that I mostly mean if his knee or calf don’t give way and he can stop himself from getting knocked out regularly – then there’s no reason why he shouldn’t play in 2017. I’ve said before on here I spend more time talking about guys who are either playing poorly or who are emerging, because what else is there to say about a Nick Riewoldt that hasn’t already been said and that we don’t already know? FFS I hope he gets another finals tilt.

On the other hand, Membrey is the other, other forward that you think is good for a goal or two in the first half before fading away and you forget he’s out there until he gets a cheap possession late in the game when it’s well and truly. But something clicked on the weekend or his tattoos started working or something because he ended up with five freaking goals. One of the pleasing things was that he got from a lot of different avenues – on the break, finding space for a lead goaling from a mark, or following up a contest and snapping a goal. Between him and Acres there was plenty of novelty new guy excitement, and as I said, he just might have kept a number one draft pick out of the team. But we have to remember he hasn’t turned 22 yet and Saturday was just his 14th game. I’m not going to be expecting him to kick five next week but unless he was just making a Beau Maister club appearance we now know some of the things he’s capable of.

The moment that probably summed up the game best was Newnes pressure, steal and goal in the third quarter after Jack Viney took a mark and played on in our forward line. It was aggressive and the goal out of mid-air was a flashy finish and it all looked great but it was the intent that punctuated it. The showing against GWS was incredibly disappointing and like the follow up to the similarly droll loss to the Bulldogs there was a real sense of wanting to atone for the poor performance. There’s been six games now and we can say confidently that at least half of them have been played with a real sense of purpose and pride and in what the club and its personnel are trying to build and achieve. We’ve waited a while for those times in which you can say, that’s what we’ve been looking for in the younger guys, or from this team who’s next serious premiership tilt won’t feature the more senior players but rather the kids. It’s not the leap to an entirely new level just yet – that’s still some time away – but for the first time in what seems a long time it feels like we’re seeing the right signs.

Redwhiteandblack.com.au 2016 Best Player Votes – Round 5
Blake Acres – 3
Nick Riewoldt – 3
Tim Membrey – 2
Jack Sinclair – 1
Jack Steven – 1

Totals
Nick Riewoldt – 10
Jack Steven – 9
Jack Newnes – 6
David Armitage – 5
Leigh Montagna – 5
Jack Billings – 4
Tom Hickey – 4
Blake Acres – 3
Seb Ross – 3
Sam Fisher – 2
Tim Membrey – 2
Shane Savage – 2
Josh Bruce – 1
Sean Dempster – 1
Sam Gilbert – 1
Jack Sinclair – 1
Mav Weller – 1

Take a breath

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.