St Kilda Posts

The Pressure

Round 20, 2017
St Kilda 3.2, 7.5, 10.7. 15.13 (103)
West Coast Eagles 3.5, 7.8, 10.10, 14.11 (95)
Crowd: 22,688 at Etihad Stadium, Sunday, August 7th at 1.10pm

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Filthy

On Sunday morning I sent out a text to our group chat on Messenger, asking if anyone was actually coming to the footy. I was a definite starter, but after what had happened the previous weekend I was expecting the afternoon to crescendo at smattered applause echoing throughout the Concrete Dome, as per our lowest depths of 2014 and 2015. After the ignominy of what had happened the previous Saturday night, I secretly hoped no-one was going to turn up.

Not even the mega-PR smackdown of announcing Roo’s retirement on the Monday was going to completely bring us supporters out of our daze and dishevelment, of the anger and humiliation flowing from the Port finish. This was before the last passage was played on loop across all footy talk shows during the week, combined with endless analysis (of which I tried my own amateur, 0 AFL games-played hand at). Regardless of how we lost, we lost, and it felt as though the season was over. The month-long farewell tour of My Favourite Hair in the AFL was set to be a string of feel-good, cash-cow Association Football Star Testimonials, featuring some veterans to remind us of the good old days (Joey, maybe Gilbert; Nathan Brown on the same team as a nice twist), and use it as an opportunity for the kids to get some game time (White, and pretty much almost everyone else).

The replaying of Roo’s better moments in his career on said shows – not least the incredible mark in Round 11 of 2004 against the Swans at the SCG – off the back of the Port Adelaide result seemed to compound the situation. The person who for all intents and purposes would be the one to lift up the St Kilda Football Club’s second premiership cup on Grand Final Day never quite would be; and we only have a short time to celebrate his longevity and somehow make all those better moments feel somewhat relevant and have currency for as long as we’re mathematically capable of a top eight finish.

Unless we pull off a premiership that would be more ridiculous and bemusing than fairytale, it’s only going to get sadder over the coming weeks. Perversely, there’s a slight chance that we might now know at the end of the Richmond match in Round 23 if it is indeed his last game, depending on West Coast’s fortunes and the outcome of their game against Adelaide, which finishes a little more than an hour after our own.

Sunday, 12.45pm – Life Choices Consideration

I felt like the past week had been an instructive one as a St Kilda supporter. As I walked up the steps at Bourke Street to hit the bridge I think for the first time I genuinely questioned why I was going to the footy to watch St Kilda play. It’s the closest I could have come to really empathise with people who just sometimes can’t be fucked going to watch this club. It wasn’t the biting breeze and the rain falling at an increasing angle – I was about to going inside to the artificially heated set of a TV program anyway. I was still so furious about the week before. I’d been thinking about what long-term supporters have seen and experienced in return for those moments, that would make those kinds of demons go away. The answer is nothing if you’re about 55 years old or under, because even if you were alive at the time you sure as hell weren’t old enough to comprehend 1966, but you sure were able to take in 1971, 1997, 1998, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2009, 2010, 2011, etc. Those have been amongst our best years, and I doubt they make you feel purely warm and fuzzy thinking bank on them.

The anomaly of St Kilda, above its one premiership in 144 years, and its 27 bottom of the ladder finishes the VFL/AFL, is that it still survives. How much longer can that last? The Road to 2018 plan had 50,000 members in Australia and 10,000 in New Zealand. How much of our current financial shortfall is owing to those ridiculous overreaches? The lack of young player development this year has surely made further ill of the on-field elements. What if we’re garbage next year?

But a number of things happened between crossing that bridge (literally) and about 4pm that showed we’re might be at least reaching out a hand to the throat of some of those demons, whether they’re one week old or 51 years old. Hell, or 144 years old.

Conveniently, it was exactly those from the last 59 seconds of the previous weekend at the Adelaide Oval that we were placed in a position to exorcise (for now). This club likes to do things in extremes. Necessarily, it was players like Acres, Billings, Steele, Sinclair and Steven who played chief roles in casting them out; players that in varying degrees contributed to or represented a famous win being dissolved via scattered thoughts and barely a whimper.

Special Bulletin

It’s worth keeping in mind that the Port Adelaide result in isolation isn’t necessarily what will keep us out of the eight by season’s end. It certainly could on a micro level, and those four points are worth the exact same as valuable as any other four points. But think of how large our losses have typically been – of our nine losses, seven of them have been by 30, 38, 40, 57, 61 and 42 points. Our kicking at goal (in wins and losses) has seen 13.19, 14.23, 9.15, 19.16, 12.13, 12.17, 14.19, 12.17 again, 7.15 and 8.13. Our 21.12 against Richmond masked the fact the score was 92-10 at half-time, and that we didn’t even end up doubling their score – but Essendon more than doubled ours just one week later. The point being, not only have we blown games owing to poor kicking, but we’ve also sat our arses firmly on our percentage. Didn’t anyone remember how important that was last season? The club decided to extend the tease early on Sunday by posting shots of Bruce shitting out snaps from the pocket in the warm-up.

Things felt like they’d picked up where they’d fallen apart completely late the weekend before. Carlisle was back in the long sleeves – this time in home jumper, which again looked sensational – and was again a rock in defence. He didn’t quite have the same presence as last week but this game was played differently, and he still proved himself to be one of the better and more considered field kicks in the team. His bullet out of the goal square at full-back in the first quarter, after Roo did a reverse Roo in the first quarter, was so good it caught Dunstan unaware, and by the time the latter had realised he was running directly through the centre square with space in front of him the moment had got to him.

Up the other end, Whipping Human of the Week Blacres gave nothing away that he was about to put in one of his best performances in his short career. No presence in a one-on-one close to goal in the opening minutes and zero follow-up once the ball hit the deck, and then an ok aerial contest presenting near the 50-metre arc was backed up by a feeble tackle attempt.

His game started to building when he actually caught someone holding the footy, but a triple treat of slop in the shadows of three-quarter time him teetering on the edge of the Blacres that we all came to know so well with 19 seconds remaining against Port. Out on the rebound he managed to fumble the footy on his own, fumbled again at half-forward, only to, uh, fumble again at half-forward and a huge Roberton mark at centre half-back might have been the only thing between him and a plane ticket back to Perth with the Eagles that night.

For his occasional air-headedness, he really does change the game around when he’s switched on. He knows how to use his speed and size to open the field up and get some movement happening, and again he moved forward to good effect. It looked like the team was intent on making that a constant element of the game throughout the afternoon. As pissed off as I was with him and the team a few days ago, one week is a long time in footy. So is 19 seconds.

I didn’t give Acres nearly enough credit watching the game live. He was also responsible for a turnover in the second quarter that led to a Kennedy goal and put them out by 16 points. That would soon stretch further out to 22, and West Coast simply seemed to just have things working a little more smoothly. Mitchell was able to poke the ball forward off the ground out of the middle in traffic and whilst the ball ended up with Sheed out wider he still went back and kicked a huge goal from the meeting of the 50 arc and the boundary.

In a similar way the GWS win was engineered by a spread of players taking responsibility to step up at different times, Jack Sinclair took it on himself at with a string of clever and classy moments to steady things well before his good mate Jack would finish them off.

It began pretty simply – he worked his way to a dangerous spot in the goal square and was in the right place after consecutive efforts from Membrey and Billings to a long kick-in for the goal on the line. Again, he put himself in the right spot a couple of minutes later, sprinting past an aerial contest out wide on the 50, took the ball cleanly and cut in to spear the ball to Roo in front of goal. It was the kind of thing that we’ve seen barely enough of this year.

He’d then engineered a kick out of defence after Longer went down back and took a mark (seriously), that saw two big kicks across the ground in a bold switch that ended with Bruce hitting the post. That was made up for (sort of) by a smother and clever turn off of his opponent just on the 50 as the Eagles looked to rebound. Another neat kick to Roo probably should have been a free kick, but Billings reacted quickly at the fall and cannoned the footy out to Blacres closer to goal.

Sinclair isn’t necessarily the fastest player but he’s consistently proven this year to be agile, quick thinking and smart. Of course we need speed, but the mind needs to work pretty quickly in the moment too.

For all of Josh Bruce’s brave hard work the week before he again displayed some serious yips. The chain of long kicks that broke open the field and ended with his poster from a set shot deserved more, and whilst he did kick two his miss at the end could have become the stuff of St Kilda legend if we weren’t able to shut down the Eagles’ final switch into the middle. The way the crowd went up when he took the mark suggested we thought the game was done, which was dangerous to begin with even if he did kick it. But it set things up for Billings to step up in a big moment.

The Pressure

Someone once said to me, “All you want to see in sport is justice”. Jack Billings wasn’t nearly our best player last week, but he didn’t deserve to be the one with the best view of Robbie Gray’s kick other than Robbie Gray, and the one that replays will show he was the closest in his failed attempt to shut him down. So I don’t know if it’s quite justice that Billings was able to produce the two huge moments in the last quarter to go with and a handy game, but to St Kilda supporters I think it felt right. That he was so emotional when he kicked the sealer should say something to us about the pressure he must have felt in that moment, and how he must have felt every time he’d missed another shot at goal during the season. Before he decided to fly backwards in the goal square for the mark with in the last quarter, he’d kicked 17.28 for the season, including 0.2 so far that night, with another behind to come. Keep in mind 5.0 of that had been kicked on one day.

And this was exactly why we’d drafted him with pick 3. To back himself and take a huge contested mark when the game was on the line, and the be the one to react quickly and run at full tilt with one minute left to open up space and provide an option as soon the ball was turned over with two points separating the sides. And then, most importantly, kick the goal. Not just after the day he’d had in front of the sticks, but the year, and the pressure of almost four full seasons as he saw the player taken one pick after him rise and become a best and fairest winner in their club’s premiership year.

Billings on Sunday also did something we probably hadn’t seen him do before – an intercept on the wing, sprint, give-off and get back and a handsome delivery to Membrey on the lead.

For a game that was played at a pretty consistent tempo and featured 29 goals, individual moments still punctuated the contest. For the Saints, it was Roo’s confused shot running into goal that barrelled into Gresham, rather than put us up by nine points with momentum in the last quarter. Dunstan’s haphazard dribble kick attempt from the boundary early in the last ricocheted of an Eagle’s boot and went out on the full, and Dunstan again stepped up in front of goal in a big moment as had the week before. Roo gave up his game to force a one-on-one contest at a key moment late. Newnes and Bruce hit the post in the second quarter, and Gresham, Savage and Bruce all missed shots in 15 minutes between Steele putting us in front with a superb solo effort from a stoppage, and Kennedy setting up what we all feared we’d face all too soon after the previous week. For all the play we had in that final term, the 5.6 registered could have looked incredibly ugly.

Steele’s game overall was simply built on hard work and like Acres’ was arguably his best in his also brief career to date. Of his 26 possessions, 20 were contested but he showed off class to go with his strength, taking a strong contested mark and goaling on quarter time to go with his one-armed grab and goal in the last quarter.

The introduction of Steele and Koby Stevens has also allowed Dunstan to play less as a purely inside midfielder and it’s been to his benefit. It’s not purely the presence of Steele and Stevens doing, because Dunstan has had to improve and change his game in the same way that Seb Ross has been able to do (he’s not quite at Seb’s level yet, obviously). He’s also done it under the magnified pressure of having been dropped three times in the one year; he’d never been dropped from the team before this season. I thought he was our lead candidate for trade bait but he’s come back to be our best or in our best in his three games.

That we were down by 22 points during the second quarter and then 14 points in the last and able to win is something of great magnitude at this point in development. It said a lot about Richo and the coaches, their coaching, and the players that when faced with a nauseatingly similar, pressure-filled circumstance after last week – both within the game and within the season – that they were able to defend when they needed to, and continue attacking in those final moments when we still needed to score and really put the game away.

St Kilda History

When Robert Harvey announced his retirement ahead of Round 18 in 2008 the club was ninth, at the bottom of a logjam of teams separated only on percentage. A winning streak had been formulated in the previous weeks, and it was the springboard to honouring Harvey with a sensational top four finish, and a Preliminary Final appearance that gave us all a week to dream that Sir Robert might make another appearance on Grand Final Day.

Strangely, that Round 18 match was against Port Adelaide, the week after we’d lost to West Coast on the road. It also saw Harvey taken off after hit to the head – topically, his head hit the Docklands turf in a tackle, but he came back on – and we won by eight points with a scoreline of 101 to 93 in front of 22,878, as opposed to Sunday’s scoreline of 103 to 95 in front 22,688.

Going into early Sunday afternoon, we found ourselves in a vaguely similar but tougher situation with the ladder to that team of 2008. The dynamics of this team are obviously much different (I still think that if the players had got their heads around Ross’s style and plan a little quicker we might have been able to give 2008 a more serious shake – although at best that would basically have meant finishing second to Geelong on the ladder and hoping to ambush them on Grand Final Day a la Hawthorn). Roo’s announcement came less than 48 hours after Acres, Billy, Dunstan, et. al. combined for create one of the iconic moments of a truly amazing season (for the opposition), and I felt the combination of events shut down our season. As the weather warmed and made its first turns for spring earlier this week, and even on the colder days the sun shone a little longer in the late afternoon, it was that familiar feeling of the pending chance for some rest as others vied to write history.

There’s still next to no margin for error over the next few weeks, but how different we feel about this team. Ultimate redemption in football terms is something most of us – and after 51 years, all of us, really – are still searching for. But along the way you need to understand and deliver on the idea of redeeming yourself. As fans we’re obviously not the ones out there making the mistakes or kicking the clutch goals, but of course still feel them. We didn’t feel the effort or development last week, but on Sunday we would be able to feel that reward as players, coaches, and a club, and as members and supporters.

Sucked in

Round 19, 2017
Port Adelaide 2.3, 3.5, 5.7, 9.9 (63)
St Kilda 1.3, 2.8, 3.12, 8.13 (61)
Crowd: 30,335 at Adelaide Oval, Saturday, July 30th at 4.15pm CST

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When the three-quarter time siren sounded we’d kicked 2.12. Blacres, having had the wet weather show up any intent to play physically, had taken a contested mark. He kicked the goal and somehow it felt as though we were a chance of winning the game.

I wrote into my notes on the phone, “Acres on the siren wtf. Potential to be a curveball moment for the season.” He wasn’t the only one to be found wanting for presence at contests in the dour conditions, but twice in the final minute he would be on the wrong end of respective moments that crushed our season.

He also wasn’t the one to find themselves in moments that upended either their own good work or the hard work of everyone else. But St Kilda is about extremes and symbolic moments that ensure the heartbreak – no matter how good we are – outweighs the rarer better moments. A famous win in was shat on and decayed in seconds to an infamous, embarrassing loss.

It’s our turn as supporters for the football world and Nathan Brown with his Channel 9 big screen and David King with his Fox Footy graphics to ask “what the fucking fuck were you thinking?” to most of the players in the last 59 seconds. We all thought we were stupidly lucky when Jimmy Toumpas trailed Joey through the forward line in the last 25 seconds two years ago, and a bunch of people thought Richmond losing three games in a row earlier this year was funny, but now we’re the ones who have moved into membership destruction territory. So let’s get this over and done; let’s combine our zero games of experience, take an amateur look at things ourselves, and get really annoyed at some humans.

Richo said the coaches were happy with the set-up at the final stoppage. As the umpire throws the ball in, Acres is actually guarding in the space the Gray runs through just a couple of seconds later. Ryder and Longer are a very long way inboard for the throw in, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Ryder’s done that because he knows he can outpace Billy to the fall of the ball. Billy’s in defensive mode and will just want to follow him, and it opens up that space because Billy’s trailing Ryder, enough to not effect the ruck contest but too close to react to Ryder hitting back to where they were.

Seb was the one on Gray and is goalside of him at the mouth of the ruck contest. He’s immediately responsible for Gray and it’s on him to be able to nullify, you know, his own player. As an aside – Seb was one of our best, but was also the one who coughed up the ball straight to the Power up the other end before they came back for the Young goal, by kicking forward without looking, rather than handballing inside to Lonie who had plenty of space and runners around him.

Dunstan and Billings are on the other side of the contest, on Wines and Polec respectively. As the ball is in the air, Dunstan pushes Wines to get him off balance for the stoppage and make sure he stays goalside of him. Polec moves slightly inboard and Billings goes with with him to make sure he doesn’t get the kind of run Gray is about to enjoy.

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Gray knows exactly what Ryder is doing and runs around Ryder to the open space left by the movement of the rucks, and has gotten rid Seb in no time. Dunstan – also one of our best, and who put us in front in the last quarter – is caught ball watching and flat-footed, having just turned from Wines, and Gray runs right past him.

By the time Gray runs onto Ryder’s tap Acres has run, incredibly, bemusingly, to goalside of the mouth of where the ruck “contest” was two seconds earlier. Billings at least had to worry about leaving Polec and opening him up for a handball from Gray and an open chance, either at goal (he’s a long kick) or at least hitting someone up.

That’s why Billings was closest to Gray when Gray kicked the goal, not because he shirked anything. Billings was reacting to a) Longer not even getting to the fall of the ball; b) Seb not quite going with Gray; c) seeing that Acres had left the space open and; d) Dunstan ball-watching not moving. He was the only one who actually did react to Gray.

It’s worth pointing out Acres getting in sucked in to this contest as well his incredibly soft effort 40 seconds of play earlier that allowed Young’s goal. Carlisle didn’t quite make a contest at the fall of Geary’s spoil, which has probably the only thing he did wrong in a herculean performance in defence. Young came through to knock the ball as Westhoff and Acres were next in line. Westhoff reacted – let alone having the will at that point to bend over far enough and then quickly manoeuvre out of Acres’s awful attempt at a tackle – and gave off the handball to Young who finished neatly.

So this week Ryder and Gray enjoy another week in the spotlight thrown to them by the St Kilda Football Club. Last week it was Callum Sinclair breezing through the best game he’ll ever play. It’s a service we provide.

How much more do I have to pay for my fucking Ultimate social club membership for the players to get paid more than the literally hundreds of thousands of dollars they’re already paid to not create a huge space for arguably the best player in the competition to run through and kick a goal? Or to fucking kick straight? More terrifyingly, what if the club doesn’t owe me anything at all? At what point do they owe me anything if they ever do? How does someone who has followed the club for twice as long as I’ve been alive feel when they see this kind of thing?

 ***

Shout-out to the barracking of the Fox Footy commentary team, and also the lazy Fox Footy coverage in general – not one cut to St Kilda players after about 30 seconds following the siren. The emotion of these moments, games and results is just as much about the losers as it is the winners. That’s why the high of victory is what it is.

(Also whilst we’re doing shout-outs even though no-one reads this, shout-out to BigFooty user RWBlyf who’s taken licence with our moniker and Twitter profile image, and who’s posts on the forum almost certainly get a bigger readership than the rambling tripe I post on this.)

There’s a lot of hurt on different fronts. As frustrating as it is to think about that last play, it just fucking hurts to think about Membrey kicking that goal to put us up by 10 points and his reaction and the reaction of the players. They thought they had it won; we thought we had it won. Membrey was huge. Great contests in the front half, an ability to actually hold marks and fucking finish in front of goal, and in pressure situations. His game and his contribution deserved a much better result. In true St Kilda style, he was the one backing into the forward 50 entry that ended with Young’s goal, and his teammates made sure he was the one on the goal line who got to stretch, reach, strive in vain to get to Gray’s kick in the final seconds.

On a more macro perspective we’d pissed the game away a long time before that. We were 2.12 at the final change and simply not using the ball purposefully or effectively when we had it. We had so much of it, too. Richo didn’t trot out the “we’ll just keep practicing line” about the goalkicking. It’s cost us this season and right now it doesn’t fucking matter until March next year.

As good as Bruce was, he kicked 0.3. I feel bad for going near potting him, because his effort was hard to fault. You could give the bigger guys an out due to the weather, but how many of those marks that he dropped or goals that he missed would have turned out differently in dry conditions or under the roof? Richo went on the record earlier this year to say Bruce had been dropped because he wasn’t finishing – he wasn’t holding his marks and he wasn’t kicking the goals. He’s invented ways to miss goals in the last few weeks. I’m absolutely not saying he should be dropped. But at what point does it become a liability? If it is, how much of a liability is it? I still don’t think we can get a decent idea until we stop kicking high and long towards goal for no-one to be at the fall of the ball.

Billings shanked a couple for 0.2 and a host of other chances blah blah blah. He’s kicked 17.26 this year. The memory of Billings moving into something bordering on elite has already become a distant “What? Oh. Yeah.” I dunno. Sometimes it’s hard to keep giving a shit.

***

Obviously the nature of the result is cause to highlight this further; similar occurred in the West Coast loss in Round 2. We let four of their nine goals go through in the last 47 seconds of the first quarter and the last 59 seconds of the match. That’s either awful coaching or the players are lacking something severe – take your pick. But it’s a fucking problem.

How do we feel about Richo right now? I wasn’t sure about his public demeanour immediately after the game. I think he didn’t quite know what to do, so I fucking hope he gets it right. There’s four more games and then we’re in the season that the club publicly declared its intentions to be a top-four team by.

It’s easy and obvious to say this, but I didn’t think Richo was angry enough publicly. I understand the need to talk up effort blah blah blah, and early on in the press conference he pointed out that “when the game was at its most important” Port were able to get it done. In his members’ message video he said, “We had a good day at clearance against a very good clearance team.” Cool. He was afforded the same unchallenged comment in the press conference. He’s obviously on good terms with Michaelangelo Rucci following some time spent in a one-paper, two-team city, but when you’re as shitty as most of us would have been with the last two minutes. Effort and basic stuff like that are a given. Surely we’re at that point in our development by now?

Also mentioned in Richo’s video message – and absolutely not his fault, but he was nonetheless put in the place to be the one to apologise for it – was that the club had a “mix-up with time” and got out early to training, them “that meant some fans that had travelled a fair way missed out”. Great work.

The elimination of the Development League this week, and the Sandringham leadership group’s proposal to the board – not to mention Danny Corcoran’s comments – has the clock is ticking on the alignment lot closer to midnight. Playing without Montagna and Riewoldt, and to a lesser extent Gilbert and Armitage, obviously wasn’t a hindrance to giving a vague effort nor missing goals as we usually do. Given that we decided to kick our season away around the ground and in front of goal over a number of weeks, we’ve also in turn wasted a lot of time not putting game time into White and D-Mac, who were really competitive last night, Marshall, who only missed out because of some weather and will probably be shunted out next week; and maybe Ben Long. Mav came straight back into them and did fuck all for his 10 possessions. I’d forgotten that he’d played.

So we know now the club was just as seduced by the second half of last year as we the fans were. Given the type of week and weekend it’s been, it was nice of Sandy to replicate the seniors this afternoon and have posted 2.8 themselves after the entire first half of footy. But why can Port recruit someone like Powell-Pepper who’s not just barrelling through Newnes in his first season, but willing to do it, and we’ve got Acres, Sinclair, Lonie and Billings being thrown around like seagulls in a breeze? Dunstan’s great form over the two weeks, in response to being dropped yet again, has been lost amongst the poor results, sure. But I don’t think four or five games for Marshall, White and Long is worth a season of finishing 11th or 12th.

The Zebs don’t want to exist as several players topping up a St Kilda VFL team, which is fair enough because the AFL should have thought about destroying a league with an amazing history and its clubs for its own benefit. The $500,000 or so that it costs to run a standalone reserves team was meant to be going to the Moorabbin redevelopment and perhaps an AFLW team, and now we might have stalled our development because we got a little bit too excited. We’re literally not a club that can afford to do that kind of thing. Maybe if we kick straight the next time we’re playing in the 2009 Grand Final we might not have yet again found ourselves in a shitty situation like this.

***

If we’re good enough, then this coach and this team and this administration will take us to a much, much better situation – specifically, a second premiership – regardless of whether we won last night or not.

As members and supporters it hurts because there’s no instant payoff. We’re not privy to, nor to do we feel or take on any of the learning or development that the players get in the post-match review, nor do we know it even exists until we see it put into practice on game day. Furthermore, those lessons count for nothing if all this development business just ends up with no premiership and another rebuild. As fans we’re staring the down the barrel of a lifetime as St Kilda supporters, and moments like these feel awful because we pay for memberships, we take the time out to watch the game, or whatever, and we need to be reminded why we do that sometimes. Game day is where we get that pay-off, whether through effort, or through the result. Those things differ from week to week and year to year.

Amongst the slow burn over decades of heartbreak of following St Kilda, these are the moments when you really feel like you get your hands dirty as a supporter. This is not our time. That’s just part of our development, and all the draft picks and trades over the past few years weren’t about building towards last night. Ultimately, it shouldn’t depend on last night’s outcome. It’s an experience for the players, for the coaches, and us as well.

What.

Round 18, 2017
Sydney Swans 3.5, 7.8, 11.14, 14.17 (101)
St Kilda 1.2, 3.2, 5.4, 9.5 (59)
Crowd: 35,773 at the SCG, Saturday, July 22nd at 7.20pm

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Tom: Well, that absolutely sucked. This week we get to share the burden of reliving the weekend’s tripe. First things first – What do you put the last two weeks coming off Richmond’s performance to? It’s the second time this year we’ve really fallen away soon after what looked to be season-defining performances.

Richie: Whichever way you slice it, we need to acknowledge a bit more that the Tigers were off. Look, it’s hard not to see it as an outlier. Generally 14 goals output signifies a decent night out let alone in one half. Finey pointed out on SEN, the Richmond game like all our wins was largely built on our defence – guys were able to push high up the ground and we kept them to a one-goal and change in a half. Two things I’ve realised since then: I don’t think it was any surprise that misfiring forwards like Lonie, Billings, Bruce, Membrey (even Roo and Gresh looked livelier) when the midfield functioned so much more efficiently and we’re winning out of the centre cleanly. But I don’t think our midfield is able to do that on a consistent basis – see: cattle. That leads to me second thing – by and large, quality opposition finds a large proportion of our younger brigade wanting, particularly in the midfield. I don’t think anyone would be shocked that Lonie and Billings were ineffective on Saturday night.

How do you think Jack Lonie is going after Saturday? Do we just need to give more continuity to our small forwards?
Personally, I can’t quite see Lonie “making it” as a player. He’s had some promising performances – Richmond, Gold Coast – but by and large he doesn’t effect contests. He’s a very clever kick of the ball, but we’re in no position to have a luxury, specialty player like that. I just can’t connect the dots when we put such a premium on forward pressure, and yet we have Lonie who couldn’t tackle a cardboard cutout to the ground. I think though, the role of the small forwards has been made much more difficult because we don’t get the ball cleanly forwards too often. In the Richmond game for instance, we had a lot more clean, quick possession and in turn guy’s like Lonie were popping up space a lot. The small forwards pecking order is a discussion in itself.

What about the Temple of Acres in his return match? In a game that we barely looked like we wanted to move the ball off half-back, I thought he looked like one of the few effective players able to provide a link and create something on the way to attack.

Blake is always going to stand out for that link up play. I think the other thing to note is that some of his kicking went “unrewarded” – yeah, I’m looking at you Josh Bruce. I think his form earlier in the year was better, but it was a good game from him and another reminder at how similar a lot of our other mids are. It also makes me think: why isn’t Richo doing a better job of freeing up Steven.

Richo lamented our ball use in the post-match. Who were the main culprits in this area? The thing is, we really struggled with this last time against the swans.

Lonie’s forward-50 entry that went straight to a Swan early set the tone, but I feel like the ball use was more to do with purpose. No DARE® Iced Coffee off half-back, but rather long kicks up the line which we’re going to shut down any potential passage. It put guys like Webster, Sinclair Ross in positions where they weren’t able to use their disposal to full effect. Excellent example of the restrictions of this team overall and how incomplete it is. Ideally we’ll be able to land some class and polish – these need to be the two buzzwords for our off-season – ideally from both a big fish and via the draft. Because until then we’re going to struggle with it; it has to be offset by our hard work otherwise and we’re not mature enough to bring that psychological commitment for four quarters every week.

One thing that was meant to be a tangible difference this year was our reinforcements down back; we weren’t meant to see any large forwards man handle us this year, but the last two games we’ve seen Daniher and then Sinclair and Buddy have significant impacts. What’s up with that?

I think quite simply it’s do with the mids getting smashed from the centre and stoppages in general. Last night we won the hit-outs and had more hit-outs to our own players, but Sydney’s tackling and pressure and was that good, and they’re also good enough to get it out of traffic quickly and cleanly. It’s given Essendon and Sydney’s forwards not just more opportunities but better opportunities. The same answer would apply if you questioned our forwards – over the past two weeks, from Riewoldt down to Battle and Marshall, the supply has been short – 37 forward 50 entries to 14 at half-time last night, and haphazard at best.

In the Richo/Finnis era, a lot of fans have been reassured by how we’ve been methodical and measured we’ve been and how we’ve had a plan. But I think it’s come time – was the plan the right one? The plan pre-dates Richo too. Pelchen was critical in its formative years, but like so many, went off into the sunset before it evolved.

As this season’s progressed I’m more sure that we as supporters were seduced by our form in the back half of last year. This year was never meant to be “the” year, even if we’d beaten the Bombers and the Swans. And the point of a rebuild is establish the grounds for a sustained period of success – like the club did from the 2000 trade and draft periods onwards – but, you know, with a premiership at some point. Officially and logistically, 2018 is the official, on-the-record, this-is when-we’re-meant-to-be-good-season, as far as the club is concerned. That’s when the coaches and administration are really on notice given that we still have a lot of guys that simply haven’t played a lot of footy. Saturday night was only Acres’ 39th game; it was Marshall’s first, Lonie’s 37th, Gresham’s 35th, Sinclair’s 39th. Dunstan is only 22, Billings hasn’t turned 22, and even Membrey’s only just turned 23. Then there’s Paddy, Battle, D-Mac, Goddard, Freeman, Rice, White and Long who either have had injuries, few or no games that are still coming through and have shown more than enough to be worth persevering with. We’ve seen what more game time has done for Billings, Webster and Ross overall this year, and Dunstan was arguably our best player in Sydney. There are two first-round draft picks to come, and that may be in the form of a big fish like Josh Kelly, or one first rounder this year and a big recruit. Our list is far from complete, but I think we’ll be duly shitting ourselves until we can justify with club success picking Billings and Paddy over Bontempelli and Petracca in paticular.

We’ve now had several debutants this year, Long, Battle and now Marshall on Saturday night. Have you been able to take away much from them so far?

Marshall and Battle came in at the worst possible times for forwards to debut. Marshall’s had a couple of years of head start but still had to work his way off the rookie list and last night he was a genuine bright spot. In the first few minutes he was giving words back to Luke Parker and he was one of the few running hard on the spread in the final minutes of the match. When he got the ball he moved quickly in tight spaces and held onto it and waited for an option. It meant the ball wasn’t spat out no purpose, it got other guys in the vicinity moving to give him something. Even his use of the body off the ball was smart and he was able to knock on the ball into space when he wasn’t able to get a clean possession. On a night in which we were monstered everywhere he showed more smarts and composure than just about anyone else, and that’s heightened when you have the physical presence and athleticism that he does. I would love to see him stay in the team, and hopefully get an even shot at it playing in the front half on a day that we’re at least competitive in the middle and give the forwards a decent chance. As far the idea of moving him onto Buddy or Sinclair on Saturday night goes given their number of scoring shots, I’m not sure how effective that would have been, or conducive for his own development. Being his first game, I don’t think there was too much immediate worth in potentially getting pantsed in that way.

I’m not sure why we didn’t bring him in earlier. To have not put Armo on the long-term injury list at any point this season only suggests one of two things – our coaches and medical term erred badly, or Armo’s body just simply isn’t up to it anymore. He’s played two games this year, and until Saturday for Sandy hadn’t played for 14 weeks.

My Favourite Player Battle was thrown to the wolves a little more in the sense that he’s still going to school and in his first year, so hasn’t that extra couple of years Marshall has had to build up his physical smarts and experience playing against mature bodies. He still managed to kick straight at goal when no one else could and the fact that he kicked four goals after being immediately dropped shows a lot of maturity. He’s another one that moves in a way that complements his size and build, and clearly has footy smarts.

It’s probably inconsistent of me to say “we’ve still got so much development left in our players though” and then turn around and say picking Ben Long at pick 25 is borderline bemusing. Right now that’s the first thing comes to mind, more so for the type of player he is, but I to remind myself that he’s shown some real agility that we lack on the list beyond Gresham and maybe Lonie (and…maybe Connellan?). Marshall and Battle this year have shown much more than Long in the VFL too, but he’s only 19 FFS.

How much of a shot are we next week? I think Port’s down week might have come one week too early.

Richo hasn’t won at Adelaide Oval ever, so it’s going to be a tough game on a few fronts. It feels like both Essendon and Sydney were able to get the ball into the corridor and break up our defensive set-up, relatively frequently. Unless this is remedied, you can visualize a lot of Port’s crafty, quick players causing some havoc there. Membrey will be a welcome inclusion. Going off of Richo’s post-match, Roo will be out, and Joey will be injured. So I certainly wouldn’t bet on us, but then again I’d almost say Port are just as flaky as us. Every time pundits get high on them, they put in a stinker. We’ve had two bad games, if we have a third – win or lose – then you have to call into question Richo and where the team’s head is at.  Another thing to note is that, there have been a lot of changes in the lineup in recent two-to-three weeks; this can’t be discounted in judging our form.Our next two are against Port and West Coast. If we lose both of those, do you think there should be a rethink on how we use the final three games in terms of selection and so on?

The way the season has panned out probably showed we were in need of more development time anyway. It’s not always a linear progression – for an extreme example see Geelong 2006 and Bulldogs 2014. Acres, Dunstan and D-Mac have shown bits and pieces in varying amount of game time, whilst Webster, Billings and Ross had taken their games to new levels from the start when there was no guarantee in the pre-season (especially after the Bont winning a best and fairest in a premiership year).

Richo said it was planned Roo would miss either this week or next. Without being at the club every day, would it take from here to convince you he should stay on for 2018? The latest murmurs increasingly suggest he probably won’t be there.

It would take him agreeing to a development coaching role. So we’re at a point where it’s publicly known that his body can’t stand up to a full season – hence, the resting plan. On top of that, he’s effectively a non-factor every time he doesn’t mark the ball. That’s not to downplay his leadership qualities, but a part of leadership is being able to walk the walk. Also, I don’t want lasting memories of Riewoldt to be him hobbling around. He’s definitely had some great games this year, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in most of the games against the bigger, better sides he’s been completely out of the contest – last night was a case in point, against the Giants is another off the top of my head. And, also with the Riewoldt thing, the macro view – Riewoldt is part of the group preventing McCartin from getting selected this year. Boomer Harvey was in North’s top 5 for disposal average last year, but they recognized that they needed to utilize his spot for the future generation.

In terms of selection, we’ve kind of gone for horses for courses approach a lot more. Do you think this has hampered the development of anyone?

I feel there’s a few parts to approach the how and ahy of this. is to do with the expectation we had for this season and the gulf between than where we’re at now. We’re at a point where we need to start thinking, ok, who are at the core of each of the defence, midfield and forward line, and get some continuity not just into individuals but those guys playing alongside others and becoming familiar with them. There will always be players at different stages of development and maturity and coming in and out of the team, so that’s where having strong depth comes into it. The fact that we’re still needing to test so many players’ worth and are still sussing out how and when to get continuity into them (injuries notwithstanding) shows how deep in the development game we still are. The Bulldogs’ ability to rely on their depth so much last year goes to their club environment as much the talent of each individual, and is probably an outlier when you look at the stability of the Swans and Hawks teams in recent years, and the Cats teams of 2007 to 2011 particularly. I think it’s more pointed to say – would the development upside have brought more positives than Player X playing this year, and what they bring to the team. After the performance on Saturday night and where we currently sit, and with the magnificence of hindsight the obvious ones in this category overall are Joey, Gilbert and Roo, and Armo and Dempster with asterisks. As far as Roo goes it meant less of Paddy and less of Marshall. But following on from the second half of last year, and all the way to a fortnight ago when we were sitting in the top four on percentage for much of the match against Richmond, those senior guys were all a part of a considered cause for getting some success out of 2017.

St Kilda Word of the Year 2017

Round 13, 2017
North Melbourne 2.5, 2.6, 4.9, 10.12 (72)
St Kilda 5.3, 8.8, 9.15, 12.17 (89)
Crowd: 26,107, at Etihad Stadium, Friday, June 18th at 7.50pm

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There are different types of wins. “A win is a win” is a phrase used to describe a type of win, rather than throw a blanket over wins. The result after a grinding two hours in a concrete dome and four weeks of disappointment generally is probably about right for this.

At quarter-time, Dad, Matt, Richie and I moved from our Aisle 44, Level 1 seats that were being flogged on the cheap to four of the many, many free seats in the several bays immediately next to us, and sat ourselves in Row F. I don’t know how the North fans felt they stacked up in terms of turnout, but even after recent weeks feel like Saints fans still didn’t have an excuse to not rock up to this one. It certainly felt in the lead up as if no-one was left on our bandwagon. Three heavy losses to quality opponents, and then a week that saw Paddy out with a surprise injury, Carlisle under a cloud and Hugh Goddard out for the year, just because. The official crowd number I’m sure was bullshit, and whatever it was by game’s end it was probably deserving of the spectacle, but that’s not really how it works. We have a record membership but things always feel a little volatile at the Saints.

Aggressive /əˈɡrɛsɪv/ adj.

Taggers might just be back. There were a few things to learn out of this one. Jack Steven’s mullet was probably overrated. Not for its size – you can’t argue with physics – but for its supposed cultural impact. The G-Train’s receding hairline plus mullet number was far more organic and conducive to his on-field personality and game style, in an era that Channel 9’s rights to the TV coverage was turbocharging the idea of footballers as glamorous and well-connected celebrities.

Jack Steven’s ability to handle a tag is still a little up in the air. North threw second-gamer Declan Mountford in to watch him and Stuv hadn’t reached double-figures by the time Richo put him forward late in the second quarter (am I giving too much credit to Richo there?). However, Mountford wasn’t with him and Stuv kicked two goals late in the quarter that busted the game apart – the first a classy snap working off Higgins deep in the pocket and the second a crumbing goal via some quick thinking in a tight space in the goalmouth. On a night when Lonie, Mav Gresham and to a point the newly-christened Latte Billings were all having trouble rewarding the hard work up the ground, Stuv had enough quality in him to make the most of his chances.

The improvement of Seb Ross this year has been more than timely. That kind of trajectory is what we’ll be hoping for from players across the ground regardless of whether we land someone like Kelly or Martin, but right now he’s a genuinely good midfielder that can be particularly damaging. “If Steven can’t shake a tag then Ross is still free to do what he does” is a sentence that finished very differently even at the end of last season. Ross doesn’t have the speed of Steven but he has developed an acceleration that probably wasn’t present even last year, and that he’s utilised to good effect this year. The extra second he’s able to hold on to the ball allows anyone ahead of the ground to sort out what they’re doing and provide an option. Until Acres becomes more consistent, and/or Freeman/Kelly etc. come into the team this type of thing will be hugely important to the team. I never thought I’d say this but Ross become a rather dynamic player – his inside game is also strong, he’s now actually a kick and his hair is not that bad.

The midfield set-up sans Jack Steele seemed to work, but again the question about the Saints of 2017 – almost certain to prove the transitional pathway to the Saints of 2018 by personnel and dynamic – is about intent. I don’t think it would have mattered too much if the choice Steele of Dunstan would of made a tangible difference. The hunting in numbers was ferocious in tight, the aggression at the ball

Listen to the fans(?)

Richo was genuinely under the SEN/Twitter/BigFooty “news” cycle pressure for the first time, reflected in a growing divergence between where he publicly appeared to apportion reasoning for the trio of shocker showings and the personnel played, and what the fans believed to be the best thing for the club (this obviously varies wildly). It felt like this had hit some sort of crescendo when Richo revealed in the late-week press conference that Steele would be dropped. The reaction prompted Twitter to have its own article about it trending.

Perhaps Richo was thinking it was time for some tough love. Dropping Bruce had prompted his best game on his return, on a night in which we’d only kicked three goals at the final change. Perhaps the coaches are it will have the same effect on Steele? And maybe put others on notice too.

Dunstan has been see perhaps too one-dimensional and I think right now we’re hoping for a Seb Ross-style stealth development from him, gradually adding layers to his game. He showed off the upside of his inside work early as well as his newfound decent disposal, running to receive the footy that was turned over by Lachie Hansen’s chest mark drop on the wing and kicking beautifully to Bruce. The kick at goal was a huge reward for the passage that signalled the team’s intentions. Shortly afterwards he bulldozed through traffic on the opposite wing for two hard balls with a dish out to Lonie who kicked the first of incredibly rare back-to-back bullet passes. Gilbert to Billings was the second, and you can throw in Billings’ finish for the third if you like.

It was the lowered kicks and a distinct lack of clang that made Dunstan’s game seem much more like the Luke Dunstan of early 2014; a bolter in the 2018-2022 Premiership Captain stakes and what appeared to be our first draft pick since the Roo, Kosi, Lenny, Dal, etc. generation to make an immediate impact. The fear has been the ceiling was reached far too early, but if Seb Ross is what Seb Ross is now then I’m willing to accept Dunstan could follow a similar trajectory. His numbers of 18 possessions, six tackles and the token skewed set shot at goal felt like they said a lot more than his 28 touches against Carlton.

Maybe Dunstan will be one of those that answer the wake-up call of being dropped back to the broken-down Sandy. Bruce has now played his best two games for the year since returning from his omission.

A couple of issues come out of this immediately. Firstly, Sandy has the bye, meaning Steele has to wait at least one more week just to get the chance to prove himself, and I doubt he’ll come straight back in if Dunstan and Koby Stevens are still fit – not to mention Armo looking at a return to Sandy in a couple of weeks. That leads us to the second issue, which is team balance. I doubt our midfield can get by with all of Steele, Stevens and Dunstan in the same side, let alone throwing Armo in there as well, as much as I think Armo is quite possible cooked.

With the ongoing My Favourite Hair in the AFL and Joey situations, team balance is going to be a talking point throughout the rest of the year, regardless of how our season is travelling. Richo rather candidly said in the post-match that Paddy wouldn’t play in the same team with Roo, Membrey and Bruce. . “It’s unlikely, I reckon. That would be a bit unbalanced for us.” Usually the coaches give something a little more open-ended but Richo really put the acid on the forwards to perform, even if it’s only injury that takes them out of the team rather than form

Roo collected 21 possessions and kicked 0.3 – if he’d kicked straight we’d be praising him but instead we’ve got Sam Edmund going straight for the proverbial on the issue before the players have had time to hand the footys out to whichever smaller, younger humans are near the fence after the game. He played his roaming game and it still looks a little undefined but there’s no one with the same versatility and presence as him at the club.

Bruce didn’t have the stats guys working too hard but seven marks and two goals belied the quality of his contributions. His opening goal reminds not just his teammates but the opposition that anywhere up to 55 metres out from goal can be a dangerous part of the ground, and it was his strong contested mark at the back of the centre square and excellent kick to Roo on the wing that allowed the play to turn from Sam Gilbert being tackled hard up against the boundary in the back pocket to a Membrey goal in short time.

For his part, Membrey was one who set the tone early with very simple, straightforward attack on the ball. Much of it was working up the field and at ground level, showing a more agile side. We know he has good body strength given his presence in one-on-one contests (in tandem with his positioning instincts) and it was refreshing to see him use it differently, forcing a contest from a spilled ball or just making sure it was a Saint that was first to it even with contact or the boundary coming. That’s the kind of thing that says something to rest of the team, and again, the opposition.

When it matters

An encouraging aspect of this one was that there was no particular stand-out player that had to carry things. Membrey certainly wasn’t the only one playing their part and showing the oft-mentioned aggression that had been lacking in previous weeks. Stevens, Weller, Dunstan, Ross, Geary (C), Gilbert and Newnes all showed it from the start and through the first half in particular. Like Ross, Newnes has slowly grown his game to the point where each of the key elements of his game have become better and better over time – his decision making with the ball, his kicking, and particularly his attack at the ball at the contest – we could hear the hit of his contest with Tarrant from our seats in the pocket at the other end of the ground. In that space, Geary was excellent in picking his moments to go and when to leave his man and hit a contest again, and is obviously leading the 2018-2022 Premiership Captain betting as the incumbent, but for mine Newnes would be leading the rest.

It’s been made clear by Richo that when he talks about “aggression” it’s in reference to how we are with the footy, not just defensively. A little strangely this might have been best epitomised by Billings’ solo effort in the first quarter that resulted in his first overturned goal. A long kick to square had him outpositioned for the mark so he force the ball down front and centre. As Mav came though with his bandaged head (probably feeling pretty excellent about himself for it, too), Billings had spun around in the area and landed without any inhibition, and immediately stepped into the dangerous space to get the handpass from Roo.

Hotline Latte finished with 2.4 and eight tackles, and looked distraught when he fluffed his shot late in the game that looked set to deliver his third goal (for the third time that night). I thought someone should have given him a hug – he’d made a huge impact across the ground when the game was alive – but I’m hoping he’s well past letting those non-goals get to him in future games. Richo said after the game about the reviews, “If that happens in a Grand Final, then it’s a good thing”. It was frustrating on Friday night but I think we’d all agree with that. We’ve been there before.

The small forward line-up remains in limbo. Mav is still trying to do far too much when he gets the ball and not impacting the scoreboard enough. Gresham kicked 1.3 and would have had a much more if he’d kicked straight and like any forward, your game becomes a lot different if those numbers are improved on paper. He probably made an impact high up the ground for the first time in his career – his soccer-style control of the ball off half-back was a good one for the highlights reel – and I’d be keeping him after this one. Lonie had been anointed by the customary posting of a VFL highlights package to the club site during the week, followed by “In the Mix” hero shot. He’s kind of like a Gresham but way too excited. A couple of handy possessions here and there were ok but he, too can try and do too much with the ball. He tried to outdo Jeremy Howe in the last quarter when he simply should have stayed down from the pack, having a few minutes earlier attempted a 40-metre dribbler close to the boundary without looking inboard. Fortunately the game was already done. You could say he just needs to calm himself down and his missed shot from close range in the second quarter would suggest that. Interestingly it was Acres, Mav, and Lonie that all contributed something commendable to the chain that ended with Gresham’s goal late, with Lonie thinking his way through a tackle expertly.

He was one of our better players throughout and it was Jack Sinclair that had enough composure to kick the goal on the run and effectively ice the game just before the final change, after eight straight behinds from late in the second quarter. Since coming into the team in Round 6 he’s shown class and quality across the ground, delivering on the promise he’d shown in 2015, and in a role he’d struggled a little with last season. He makes purposeful, creative decisions and delivers on them. It’s a simple equation but players who can do that regularly really do stand out.

The rear end

Aside from a few nervous moments early when Waite got off Carlisle to kick the first and it looked as though Jake might be carrying more than he’d let on through the week. Richo said in the post-match that that he didn’t mention many individuals to the group after the game, but that he did point out Carlisle (incidentally, he said Bruce was one other that he mentioned). This appeared to be more to do with how he approached the week and the preparation, which is an excellent sign in itself. But by three-quarter time he was part of a defence that had only given away 4.9. Nathan Brown didn’t get a kick and only had six handballs for the game – going head-to-head with ball repellent Billy Longer – but they both did what they had to collectively on Ben Brown and Waite, and allowed Webster, Gilbert and Roberton to ply their trade as rebounding defenders, with Roberton back to his better form and Webster establishing himself as one of our most important and best-skilled players. The Carlisle and Brown combination is good if the midfielders and any players around the stoppages are aggressive (St Kilda Word of 2017) and use the ball cleanly going forward; i.e. if they give Carlisle and Brown an even shot at things. With Hugh out for the season again we’re going to really be hoping they both stay fit this year.

It’s also given more impetus for those keen on Joey to maintain his place in the team. All the Dermie faff from the previous weekend aside I’d been thinking that after all these years his experience was still only good for his loopy kicks no matter what the situation. Friday night didn’t particularly change my mind. Despite a couple of really good contributions, including a brilliant long kick on the rebound to Roo on the lead (Roo missed the goal of course), he still made some weird errors (not as weird as the 50-metre penalty Billy Longer gave away in the first quarter though). Most of these were confined to the first quarter – a high kick loopy out of defence to a contest featuring tall timber Jack Lonie, which came back with interest to Higgins for a shot at goal; he got the ball kicked up his arse by Newnes on the forward 50-metre arc because he couldn’t pick between shepherding and providing a handball option over the top of the opponent; and with 37 seconds left and a string of Kangaroos behinds that tempered the frustration of Billings’ first overturned goal, Joey took the kick-out and just had to hit a target, and we’d go into the first change with a lead of 22-point lead that even then wasn’t where it should have been. He bemusingly hoisted it to a pack not actually that far from goal, and from the throw-in Ryan Clarke snapped a very nice goal. Richo talked about what he brings to the team in a directive and leadership sense on and off the field, and his output certainly improved throughout the game. At what point do you need to start bringing in guys like Rice, White and D-Mac though? For as long we have a sniff of finals Joey simply won’t be dropped this year.

Richo watch

How are we feeling about him this week? Do we give him the credit for putting Bruce back into the VFL and sparking him back into action? What about Steele? Who is responsible for the drop-off in the last quarter? Which apparently season-defining and different questions will we be asking today/tomorrow/this week/next week about Richo and the players and the club? All this and more on Footy.

Good, bad, ugly, etc.

Round 8, 2017
St Kilda 4.3, 6.5, 9.8, 12.13 (85)
Carlton 4.0, 6.1, 9.3, 10.6 (66)
Crowd: 38,014 at Etihad Stadium, Saturday, May 13th at 2.10pm

 

Version 2

 

Saturday afternoon, the roof was open, two founding VFL teams with plenty of youth and on the improve. A huge crowd expected after last year’s sell-out, and fair to say both teams have shown further improvement since then. What more could you ask for?

By Monday’s wash-up we had the captain and coach apologising on behalf of the St Kilda Football Club to the Carlton captain for some pretty sordid sledging, whilst the latter had gone over to a player lying on the ground injured and had a crack at them.

It might have been the day we saw the genuine break-out game from Jack Billings, but certainly for now this one’s in a weird category – certainly for Saints fans – all on its own. There was the good, the bad, the ugly, etc.

For about 15 or 20 minutes we might have been sitting around thinking, “Well, we’re good now.” Weitering had blatantly shoved Jimmy Webster in the back en route to the opener but for a period after then we were looking at a Saturday afternoon stroll with all the extravagant thoughts that come with being 5-3 after years of dishing up garbage. In 1997 we were 4-4, in 2005 we were 4-4, and in 2010 we were 5-3. What does that mean? Nothing, because in 2009 and 2010 we were in front in time-on of both Grand Finals and came up with donuts.

So, uh, Saturday. Our midfield weren’t just working hard but they looked slick after their huge performance last week, albeit against not quite the same opposition. The around us heading into the weekend was about the maturity of the group and it could handle backing up a huge performance like that. After HUMAN OF THE DAY Jack Billings snapped our first we were witness to probably the cleanest break out of the middle for a goal we’ve seen in a very long time – Longer with a clean hit-out to Steele, who kept composure and importantly, his arms free in a tackle to give off to Newnes running past, and he bulleted the kick to Bruce on the lead who managed to actually hold on to the grab and kick the goal. It looked like we were gonna be fine.

Carlisle was looking ominous. Playing off Weitering after a contested mark he set up the first goal, and Billy Longer was already looking more than competitive at the stoppages.

By the time Brown’s punching kick down the middle was cleaned up with a smart knock-on by Sinclair to Dunstan, who kicked long to the advantage of Membrey (almost spoiled by Acres who was looking to get involved ASAP after last week) and rewarded the work with a goal

But that was as comfortable as it would look for the rest of the day, really. Even when Billings kicked his fifth and took us out to a four-goal lead in the third there was an expectation that Carlton would hit back again, as they had around the midway point of each quarter.

It wasn’t until after the Blues’ quick flurry of chances early in the last that we were able to put a clamp on their kicking game that Bolton seems to have brought over from Hawthorn. The Blues have a lot of young guys they’re well drilled, patient and disciplined, and they didn’t go away. Once the ebb and flow of the game was in their favour they were able to control the ball across the ground, working hard to provide options for each other coming out of the back half.

Even once we put the brakes on in the last quarter we still had to work hard to keep them at arm’s length. The inside 50s read 41-24 at three-quarter time, and the handball count 161-83. They were some clues as to why we were only five points up, and Carlton were up and about after a melee that is now infamous amongst melees. Cool. We’ll get to that.

***

I don’t know exactly how Leigh Montagna will go down in the annals of St Kilda history, but before Saturday he was the only Saint alongside Darrel Baldock in 1965 to have kicked five goals and collected 30 possessions or more in a game.

In his 50th match, Jack Billings joined them. It was the game we’d been waiting for him to play since he led the comeback against the Bulldogs early in 2015. He’d started this season as whipping boy but within two months he’d been threatening to do just this, whilst having a growing impact along the way. He was more than the difference between the two sides – five goals, 30 possessions and 12 marks in a 19-point win. Four goals out of six at half-time; five goals out of a team total of 12 on a day in which we spent much of it burning opportunities going forward. A strong team doesn’t only mean everyone always contributes evenly – it also means different players will take responsibility to pick up the slack when an off day hits.

It was a long way from the first three games earlier this season in which his borderline-seagull performances had him getting easy touches off half-back and having the Diet Caffeine-Free Billings impact we were worried was going to linger. It hit a low against the Lions – 14 touches and not much else, and I would have had him in line for being dropped ahead of Paddy that week. The switch to a more forward-focused role was still to be tried in earnest this year though, and I’m sure that if it was obvious to me then people actually professionally involved and invested in his development would have been all over it.

When we as Saints fans talk about what he’s capable of our reference point is that comeback game in 2015. On that particular Saturday afternoon he kicked 4.2, including some very, very classy finishes in key moments, to go with 22 touches and seven marks. Our next reference point would be his 30-possession, two goal, 10-mark game against Collingwood in Round 3 last year – it was the first time he looked really comfortable moving much higher up the ground, but he had the scoreboard impact as well. Like Saturday, the common links are that he provides a marking target across the ground as well as hitting the scoreboard.

The Collingwood match saw him start either closer to or in the forward line, and it immediately gave him more focus and more purpose: a goal-kicking or goal-assisting target anywhere from close to goal (see his goal from a pack mark in the square) up to around the 50-metre arc, otherwise a target when going forward which allowed him to offer his smarts across the ground to move into position as well as use his disposal, rather than just cruising past a stationary player and using only one half of that package. Until the weekend, however, his kicking in front of goal was borderline comical and showed there was, for this stretch anyway, one part of his game that his confidence was still a little shaken. His return was 4.12 from a mix of set shots and snaps this season. We’d taken him at pick 3 to have the composure not just across the ground but in dangerous positions to create goals and opportunities, or finish them off. Finally, it clicked.

It’s become common knowledge that he went to the coaches and players in the off-season to go about improving his game, and was in turn challenged by his teammates. Saturday provides landmark performance for him, but doesn’t represent a normal performance for him, or anyone really. Perhaps it might give him a confidence in front of goal that lifts his accuracy, which would certainly make some of his games this year all of a sudden much better. Otherwise we’re looking for him to ultimately improve in the same way players like Ross, Webster, Roberton, etc. have shown. The class and skill he brings to the side will come to the fore with that progression. It felt for a long time – I’ve come this far without mentioning The Bont – that the onus has been on him to deliver on his potential, particularly given we’d taken him before, uh, a best-and-fairest winner in a premiership year player. The often-agreed 50th game milestone as a gateway to the next phase of a player’s career might have proved to be on the money with this one. He might have blown that so far out of the H20 on Saturday that the onus might have been flipped onto us, to not get too carried away and to temper our expectations. We as Saints fans are traditionally prone to a Messiah complex.

***

Murphy and Carlisle have provided the tabloid story of the week via a smack in the nuts and some sledging, about, uh, other stuff tabloids like. There’s a bunch of things I take away from it and my head ended up forming more of a rant than what I usually put down on this blog. I’ve put it in point form more for myself than the reader, but it certainly should help. They’re all pretty hard and fast.

  • If the roles were reversed, each club’s supporters would be reacting in the same way as the opposition’s are right now.
  • I think the sledging was pretty shit. Sure, it’s part of the game and all of that. But is that the kind of thing that you really measure someone by, or challenge someone on? What about yourself?
  • People using the word “cuck” to describe Marc Murphy is fucking gross (see above).
  • Running over to a player on the ground who’s in pain and/or injured and giving them a spray is lame, whether you’re the captain or not.
  • Someone from the Blues obviously wanted to throw some good old-fashioned 20th Century Carlton Football Club weight around and get a better story for them out to the press immediately and the media were keen. The Age ran with Murphy won’t “pursue action” over the comments. Whatever you think of the sledging, I don’t know what “action” he would technically be able to “pursue”. With no-one in the media saying much on what the sledging was about until Monday evening then wording like that on the part of editors it opens St Kilda players to being guilty of far more reprehensible stuff. The article also said that “The Saints and Blues have both privately accepted some fault after the heated encounter”. The Herald Sun went with the old “media identity says a thing which is now news because we said so” line of “Premiership coach Paul Roos says St Kilda’s personal sledging of Carlton captain Marc Murphy is a blight on the entire club”. Easy one for the paper to go with without their dislike of the Saints coming technically from their own mouth, but then it would go on to say, “The Herald Sun understands neither club wants to take the issue further, given there was sledging from both sides. A Carlton spokesman said Murphy would not be putting in a complaint, intent on moving on from the incident.” (Might be worth pointing out they have had Landsberger writing some specifically positive stories in the past few months).
  • I don’t know if a specific player code needs to implemented, but perhaps I’m being too generous on players’ standards. It should be pretty evident what’s a dog shit thing to go after a player about and what’s not.
  • Geary and Richo apologising is a welcome change. I say that with many asterisks a lot of mixed feelings. As a club we’ve been hung in the media much more painfully for a lot less in the past – and perhaps not as much for a lot worse.

I deleted a tweet about Murphy and his captaincy that I shat out in anger at three-quarter time, after I yelled things including calling him a “fucking dog” and “weak prick” immediately afterwards (with the small child directly in front of our membership seats present). I didn’t know whether to leave the tweet up for posterity once I learned more about what has happened. It said, “You’re ***amazing*** Marc Murphy. Great captain, leadership, etc. etc.” and ended with “#clown”. I’m still happy about Geary’s response to Murphy going over to Carlisle, followed by Steele and then…pretty much everyone else. But with more context the tweet becomes tribalistic. None of the things that happened on the field cancelled each other out; they all add up on top of each other. It felt spiteful in the seats for much of the game, but perhaps I’m in hindsight only colouring the frustration that we felt about how the match itself was panning out.

After the game I only saw Geary and Joey shake hands with Murphy (Joey might have been having words though). They had a chat and Geary gave Murphy a pat once they were done. Comments from SEN presenters were again used as news fodder to feed the, uh, SEN news cycle. There might actually be something to be learned out of it – even Damien Barrett was sounding considered today – but yet again some parts of the media made themselves the news. Before Geary commented publicly the Herald Sun we running a story based on something Wayne Carey said. And so it goes.

***

I don’t know if it was just me but as we were all sitting there wound up at the final change – Saints and Blues supporters for different reasons in that particular moment – I think the “Saints in the Seats” or whatever the fuck segment on the big screen kind of sapped the atmosphere. I was already having a ball with the roof open, allowing us to enjoy the Concrete Dome as a footy ground rather than a TV set on a Saturday afternoon watching two clubs with a combined 297 years of history. It was a fierce contest and then we get match-day presenter Emma Davenport being told to talk to a three-year old at realistically the one point in the day the crowd was totally not up for that kind of thing. Obviously it was pre-planned but I would hope even by today’s standards we’re invested enough in the game by that point to not need that kind of thing.

Also for the Seinfeld files, I’m not liking the club’s decision to play the song once after the win and then go to the faux-crowd chant version immediately afterwards, and then Emma for a player interview before going back to the song. They’re really trying hard with this chant thing but I’m still under the impression that if they took it away it would never be sung by the fans as an organic expression. Before the game I think it’s actually pretty good – for those of you 1. still reading for some reason (Hello Campbell and Harry) and 2. who haven’t experienced it, the chant is played as the players come out onto the ground and goes straight into the traditional club song as the players break through the banner. The timing could be a little better, as they go to the song maybe a few seconds too late, but it’s a much, much better build-up than some name-a-hit early 2000s track. Post-game is a bit different at the moment. Playing the song once and then going to something that the fans really aren’t sure about (and then a player interview) really drags on the atmosphere. It’s fooled Andy Maher and I’m pretty sure if fooled Ben Dixon after the game too when he was talking to Junior Burger for the Fox Footy broadcast, but otherwise I think that’s it. It’s best kept for the pre-match.

(Bonus Garbage: Fortunately the club has ended its pretty bizarre experiment of taking out the drum roll at the beginning of the song. My dream is to be at the MCG on Grand Final Day for a St Kilda premiership, and for the final siren to be followed immediately and loudly by the drum roll intro of the club song. You can crush my dreams by throwing away leads late in consecutive Grand Finals, but don’t take away my dream with a weird admin decision.)

***

The context of this week’s win is only complete sitting after the previous week. This was the first time this group has claimed a genuine scalp and had it on them to prove their mettle as a serious team. They were headed in the second half last week by a juggernaut-to-be that had several times demonstrated superior class and talent. The response was players like Acres, Gresham, Sinclair and Ross to step up and outwork their more fancied, fashionable opposition. This week they were being pushed by a young team who were sticking to a plan and responding effectively to each other and their coach. This time, the response was to will themselves to a win without too many highs to cover over the come down from last week. Again, it was achieved by hard work and on a day where so much was created by ourselves, let alone a buoyant opponent.

The three-quarter time siren going when it did was probably a good thing. It was probably the best thing at quarter time and half time, too. Carlton’s youth has brought a lot of energy and so much out of players like Murphy, Gibbs and Kreuzer. Once they wrestled the momentum back during the quarters it was tough for the Saints to take back – they kicked the last three of the first quarter, two of the last three (albeit out of four in total) in the second, and the last three in a threatening five minutes just before the final change. We’re making a habit of games being decided by final quarters. We’d better get really good at this.

Billings aside, and perhaps Ross’s goal in the last, the highlights reel probably belonged more to the Blues. Alex Silvagni’s smother on Robertson, Williamson’s goal and the team reaction, the presence and skill in a number of moments from Cripps and Charlie Curnow. The reaction from Geary to go to Murphy was exactly what you want, too, but the darker undertones of the game are what will resonate most for the wider football public. We’ve long been a club that lacked enough of a hardarse factor; on Saturday we went too far in searching for it.

Indeed both clubs were looking to get it out of sight and out of mind as soon as possible amidst the public fall-out. From a footballing sense it wasn’t a memorable match, although it might prove to be as important a win as last week’s. But can you really completely separate the game from the psychological and the emotional?