Sunday 28 March 2021

A cat couldn't scratch it

Once time travel is invented you'll never kill Hitler for everyone clogging the servers to maliciously visit their past or future selves. For instance, 15-year-old me can expect the mid-age mediocrity version to lecture him while holding a fork to the throat. On the other hand, I will be on high alert for a visit from 2007-2016 Adam, who may leap from the shadows and garrote me for becoming the sort of person who willingly skips live games.

While I did intend to go last night - having long since come to terms with Fortress Docklands - my commitment didn't stretch to setting an alarm for the 30 minute window to redeem a ticket. Having only missed the main event by a few minutes I thought I'd better do the right thing and try to get one through the general membership sale. That took my barcode, offered me a seat for $23 and I said no, no, no. 

Last year finally finished off a near 15 year run of feeling like I had to be there every week. Kind people offered tickets but I was happy enough to stay home, sit under an old man blanket and not have to mingle with anyone outside my direct family. For reasons that will become clear soon enough I'll be hard-pressed to get to a game from Round 9 until about 2025 anyway so why not get used to it now? 

Of course, I woke up on Saturday morning feeling bad about my decision, and briefly contemplated paying the $23 to sit in the middle of Saints fans. Latent guilt probably contributed to the all-encompassing headache that struck me down at about midday and has never really gone away since. I'm sure that, like the time a headbutt from a baby caused what later turned out to be a broken nose,  adrenalin would have carried me through the game before a 'watch out innocent motorists' Grand Theft Auto style drive home.

So after watching our AFLW team pull off the female equivalent of a ballsy win (that post is on the way - this two games a week stuff is going to kill me) while dreaming of weapons-grade painkillers, I activated the far-less-impressive-than-it-sounds Demonblog Towers Megawall, put my feet up and hoped for the sporting equivalent of soothing music.

After being battered at centre bounces for much of last week, plowing out of the middle and laying a goal on for the returning Jack Viney within 30 seconds was the most calming scene since the old man snuffed it in Soylent Green. It wouldn't have happened without Pickett's midfield cameo, adding an element of electricity to our usual see ball, get ball, dispose of ball by any means necessary tactics. He caused the Saints trouble for the rest of the night, making my earlier suggestion that we should play Chandler instead look progressively more ridiculous.

To the untrained eye St. Kilda had a side chockers with randoms (including Shaun McKernan, who fortuitously chose them over us shortly before all their rucks got injured), but still fielded the core of a team that won a final last year. I had to respect this, given that it's better than we've done for 13 of the last 14 seasons. Which is why it was heartening to see us run them around the ground for the first few minutes, barely allowing them a touch. 

The only problem is that we've been in this situation many times before, and the hot start only lasts until the other side get their hand on the ball. The difference at the moment, and who knows if it holds up against really good teams, is that we've got a backline other teams are shitscared about kicking long to. Mental torment from kicking it to Steven May about 25 times in our last meeting seemed to affect St. Kilda's thinking at the start. They found some success kicking to leads instead, but it's nice to have a defensive combo (and I'm almost ready to promote Tomlinson to a fully-fledged member of the New Jurassic Pack) that can so successfully interrupt one opposition avenue to goal. Two rounds in we're amongst the top four defensive sides in the competition, and the only one of Gold Coast (!), Port and Richmond that hasn't played a confirmed struggler.

If the Saints were inspired by their near miss in Alice Springs, so were we, spending much of the night kicking it long into attack and hoping for the best. This generated 31 scoring shots from 54 forward entries, but most of the remaining 23 were sat right on top of the comically named Dougal Howard. He's probably done enough to be just outside Kingsley range, but it's still telling that in his 66th game this added nine to his previous best disposal tally.

Given the midfield had a much better time of it this week - especially Oliver, who overcame a high-level scragging campaign - there's no telling how much better it would have gone with our first choice forward line. It's typical just as new rules artificially bring back the full forward we've got two that are crocked. If Taylor Walker can kick 11 in two weeks I'm confident Ben Brown and Weideman can do damage when they return. No doubt just as they recover from their various calamities, coaches will work out how to take the game back to a grim defensive struggle and we'll reap none of the benefits.

For now, Tom McSizzle is trying his heart out and having some success (and if he kicks two every week that will do me), but the job is too much for him on his own. With Gawn regularly saving our bacon down the other end, the only other genuine tall forward target is Jackson, who is a great mark but - for now - a rotten set shot. He's got natural talent out the wazoo, so no worries there but I'm impatient to get back to kicking blockbuster scores a'la Round 8-10, 2018. 

We've done enough to beat teams around our level, but are we going to get away with kicking such (relatively) low scores against the better sides? Because as much as we like going 2-0, and SHOULD beat the pants off the bottom four, we need to overcome some (preferably all?) of Richmond, Geelong, Brisbane, Port, West Coast and Footscray. All of them beat us somewhere between comfortably and comprehensively last year, leaving us vulnerable to the dual Cairns letdowns that ruined the season. 

Our second most potent mark is Fritsch, who is shit hot at finding the ball on the lead but usually winds up kicking from Row Z, contributing to a 25.28 record since the start of last year. Given the angles he's usually on I don't blame him for missing, and appreciate his talent at getting the ball in the first place, but there has to be a plan to put it in hands in better positions. He had the chance to press home the advantage barely a minute after our first goal, but given that he was kicking from Fritschville (postcode 25.28) there was no surprise when the shot drifted wide. He had two more misses before bringing the house down by randomly converting just as we were desperate for a goal.

Let off from going two goals down, St. Kilda didn't take long to look dangerous. First it was that man Membrey, who has only kicked five against us once (when Hogan booted seven down the other end. What could possibly go wrong?) but always seems on the verge of a double figure rampage when we show up. When he converted here I fully expected this to be the night he finally attained his destiny, but when for the rest of the night he was either being tormented by defenders - often the very good Tomlinson - or kicking behinds.

The second goal came through Nathan Jones, who was much better this week despite being stationed in the Death Valley half forward flank position that famously destroyed Luke Tapscott's career. It was created by a slightly awkward kick into space by Petracca that nearly ran away from Jones and made them both look silly. He also got one over his brother, who looks a bit unpleasant. I'm sure Nathan thinks well of him. The member of the family that it's ok to like didn't get a huge number of possessions, but was solid with what he did.

Suspicions that Petracca wasn't entirely right last week were reinforced by evidence of his legs having undergone the cupping session of the millennium, possibly via an industrial-strength vacuum cleaner. I've seen people come out of Guantanamo Bay with less visible signs of torture, but whatever they did worked a treat because he played another fine game. He'll have his ups and downs but it's almost time to admit that he's reached a level where opposition sides know what he's going to do but can't stop him doing it. That, my friends, is the superstar tier of the game.

Jones' goal opened the door for St. Kilda's best period of the first quarter, but after they wasted two opportunities Viney cropped up for a career best equalling second. Jack spent half the night on the bench while being eased back after injury, but his first quarter was vintage Viney. It was also a reminder of how ridiculous it was that some people had keys in their hand ready to drive him to Kardinia Park in the off-season. Find me another player who is as consistently savage with his tackling. That's what made this goal, dragging some hapless bastard down like a shark in the ocean.

Because things were starting to go well, we did the only obvious thing and conceded two goals to end the quarter. In another example of the AFL website being the worst ever created by a major sporting organisation the 'highlights' didn't bother to show either. Maybe they didn't want to show the wonky free against May that caused the second one. Either that or Hamish McLachlan's brother was protecting him from a libel suit by deleting the initial claim of a free against Gawn for staging.

After slaughtering a barely AFL standard forward line last week, 150 gamer May (who was either booed for belting a St Kilda player once or because some people can't recognise quality when they see it) had far more trouble with Max King. 

For fans of discredited theories, this isn't the brother people think we could have got with the pick traded for Jesse Hogan even though we only traded him specifically to bring May in. Nor, not surprisingly, is it the one that used to be on our list, now plays for South Croydon, and appears to have just turned 47 (before/after). This one will be a shit-hot player for years to come if he can avoid the same cavalcade of chaos that ruined Hogan. May still had a fine game, and by the standards of some of the defences we've had over the years he was practically Team of the Century material, but he looked more vulnerable when left one-on-one here than he has for a long time.

Given that we'd clearly been the better side in the first quarter, conceding in prime DemonTime was not only painful for us, but to the umpire who had to try and justify his decision to an aggrieved May while he walked to the huddle. Eventually, probably worried about a John Bourke style incident, the umpire made a frivolous claim about "taking his run" and legged it. Later May and King two jostled in a contest and play went on for about 10 seconds before the Saints man was given a free. This one was definitely there, but if you're going to wait that long to make a decision the Brisbane Lions must have some hope of being called back to Kardinia Park for a kick to win the Friday night game.

Whether the initial free was there is open to debate, but reduced the gap to an uncomfortable two points at quarter time. I'm in love with our defence, and they did well again here. Salem is the most underrated of the lot. He plays with rare calm and generally hits a target every time. Lever was also very good again, though he one tremendous blunder later in the game and gave a post-match interview in a voice that suggested Gareth John style larynx trauma.

The margin was not fair reward for how well we'd played, but then again we shouldn't have been four goals up at the break last week so swings and roundabouts. Not long after there was plenty to get upset about, conceding the first uncontrollable rush of goals for the season. I suspect it won't be the last, but let's see how many times it costs us games this year, especially against top sides.

If, like me, you think the defence is the barometer for the rest of the side, their first goal after the break was enough to make you sweat up. May, Lever and Gawn all jumped at the same ball, which then deflected off May's head and into the path of King. By the time Tomlinson was pinched for a deliberate in the pocket - and it was a bit harsh but what do you think is going to happen when you hit it straight at the line these days? - and the margin hit 16 points things were looking a bit shithouse. Just as I was about to launch into an expletive-laced tirade about the difference between a mediocre team with a good coach and Melbourne, we piled on three goals in as many minutes and retook the lead. Never a dull moment.

The second was the best, after generously allowing Anal-Bullet to kick the previous one, Pickett kicked a goal of rare beauty. In the space of three seconds from start to finish, the ball slipped through a defender's fingers to him, then with his back to goal, and surrounded by three Saints players and one teammate he ducked under one tackle so he was facing the right way, then ran around three more defenders and kicked the cover off the ball for the finish. If that doesn't win Goal of the Week at a minimum the award should be abolished.

In contrast, Sparrow's goal looked run of the mill. In isolation, it was actually a delightful finish. When he called the ball while running into the 50 I don't think he accounted for the defender coming the other way, and while 40 years ago he'd have been hospitalised he was now able to bring the ball to ground with the lesser-seen attacking spoil, gather it on the bounce, step back inside an opponent and put us ahead again.

The bit where they were kicking bulk goals gave me the shits but our response was excellent. There was even a chance for a fourth, but Fritsch missed his third set shot. Forget the Coleman, where can I bet on somebody leading the league in behinds? It's hard to be upset because he gets the ball so much, but Jesus H Christ did we not learn anything from his goalkicking woes last year? Compare to the end of 2019 when we threw him forward in a panic and he got goals from a variety of spots. Tellingly the last one of the season was from Downtown Fritschville, now he's spending the rest of his life trying to do that again.

Somehow, this late burst of goals saw us actually win the quarter, much to the dismay of Brett Ratten, who'd gone from my fantasy coach (other than Choke Yourself With A Tie of course) to a bloke stuffing his face full of lollies for want of any idea what to do next. No judgement from me, that's been my work life for years. The good news for him is that in a game of wild momentum shifts, a four point lead meant bugger all. 

Nerves were nearly calmed in the opening seconds of the third quarter when Petracca plowed out of the middle and narrowly missed another lightning opening goal. Nevertheless, it was clear that any momentum we carried into the half remained with us. St. Kilda did their bit by leaving Ed Langdon standing 20 metres from goal without an opponent in the same postcode. When Maximum chipped over the top to him, Ed was so confused at the lack of anybody within 20 metres that he briefly hesitated, before coming to his senses and casually wandering in to goal. Langdon is not only an excellent addition to our team, his rolled-up long sleeves form an underrated tribute to our future senior coach Adem Yze.

That moment of defensive madness cost them two goals, we stormed the 50 straight from the bounce, they shit themselves trying to handball out of trouble and Spargo got another. We were one goal from delivering the fatal blow, at which point we started blowing chances at a rapid rate. You don't need to have seen the game to know that this led to us conceding against the run of play. Twice in fact, both due to blooper reel quality dropped marks, first by Lever, then Jackson. I didn't enjoy either, but if you hung every Melbourne player for a tremendous defensive error gallows bookings would be so backed up that they wouldn't have got to Simon Buckley yet.

The Lever one wouldn't have happened if the umpire had shown an interest in the Saints player headbutting Hunt's knee. Don't know what Jayden could have done different, other than look like a goose by theatrically leaping over the top of the contest, but that's the sort of free the guy who is clonked gets paid 99 times out of 100. The other time they give people's outrage a workout by calling it contact below the knees.

In this case, the contact was firmly to the head, offering St. Kilda an excuse to send on their substitute, while for the second week in a row our reserve was left running laps of the boundary and pondering what VFL ground he'll be playing on next week. I'm pleased Baker was not required, because it meant we didn't have any serious injuries, but isn't it a touch farcical that teams can be advantaged by an injury? Given that a 75 interchange cap is bollocks anyway, what about teams get five more when the other side uses the sub? Mr. Hocking, I patiently wait your invitation to join the Impulse Changes To The Laws of the Game committee.

Now we were drifting like a Taiwanese ship at the Suez Canal and the other side had a fresh player to add to the contest. This was not good for my physical or mental health, and I can't imagine how things would have gone if I'd had to sit next to some dickhead St. Kilda fan. It might have gone the same way as the 2006 Elimination Final, the last time I ever went too close for comfort to biff with an opposition supporter.

Enter a Mr. B. Fritsch of Coldstream, who chose this of all moments to get us out of jail with a difficult set shot. He'd had enough practice. It began at the other end of the ground with a bit of classic Nathan Jones, picking up a loose ball and contemptuously pushing an attempted tackler onto his arse. It was a bit of a wank-handed effort, but Jones still did well to escape. We pinged down the other end, where McSizzle found Bayley at roughly the same angle he took all his other shots from but much closer to goal. I was getting ready to have a massive sook when he thumped it straight through the middle.

This came at just the right time, taking the margin back to 15 and giving the Saints something to get disheartened about during the 3/4 time break. I don't trust any lead that hasn't crossed the Chris Sullivan Line but the more the margin the merrier.

We'd run the game out spraying shots as if drunk, but it a quick one-two punch at the start of the quarter ultimately made it safe. First McSizzle, via a centre clearance aided by manic pressure from Pickett, Oliver having a sixth sense about where the ball's going to go, and Brayshaw - for all the shit I give him - bravely running into a contest where he could have been decapitated. I've never questioned his bravery, just the disposal, which is why he got very lucky that Sizzle managed to get a hand to what should have been an easy pass but almost flew over his head. He plonked it through, the margin was over 20 again, and we were either going to win or look like cockheads in losing.

Pickett returned to put them away for good, on the end of yet another Gawn/Oliver combination, pinching a loose handball from mid-air, wheeling around and kicking it over his shoulder. I might be forgetting something crucial, but this may have been the best small forward game we've seen since original recipe Aaron Davey.  

We've got form for running away from teams - see the Adelaide, North, Collingwood romps last year - and were threatening to do likewise here. Spargo had another good game, and nearly capped it off with a miracle goal. I'd have argued that Pickett's was still better, but this would have won Goal of the Year due to the impossible angle. Charleston responded to what he thought was his good fortune by pulling a series of funny faces that will look even better when turned into a GIF.

Even he was surprised that it went through, and the goal umpire came to the party by calling it a goal. Alas, Snicko ended the dream, clearly showing that it clanged the post on the way through. Hard to argue, incidents that can conclusively be proven via technology are the only time video referees should be used. Just a shame that it cost him whatever shithouse prize is on offer from major sponsor Rebel Sport. When it was Toyota you got to borrow their car for a year, Rebel probably loan you a towel.

Despite the disappointment of Spargo not instantly becoming a national celebrity, we continued to pile on the pressure. Every minute that passed reduced our chances of being stooged in a miracle comeback but I'd still have enjoyed a good old fashioned exclamation mark sealer. Instead, not for the first time, they got a couple of quick goals to keep it interesting. 

Cue slight clenching of the fundamental orifice, until the best thing Jayden Hunt has ever done as a defender set up the steadier. Don't know why he's abandoned the headband, unless he lost the rights in a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors with Langdon, and I still refuse to accept that he is best used down back, but the gather and Intercontinental Ballistic Missile kick into the 50 were top shelf. There a Saints defender hung off McDonald's jumper like Errol Flynn swinging across the room on a chandelier, then proceeded to whinge about the free at length before, during and after the goal. 

Job now officially done, we packed up and let them play out the last 10 minutes like it still meant something. Apparently Jack Higgins now plays for the Saints, which I only discovered at the end because he'd done chuff all until then. Also briefly clenching his ringpiece was Clayton Oliver, who failed to heed coaching instructions about not bumping and narrowly avoided a holiday when he clubbed into an opponent's shoulder rather than the head.

So, our best player survives into next week, nobody got injured, Petracca's legs have been rejuvenated by some sort of medieval witch doctor, and Melbourne is 2-0 to start the season for the first time since... err... 2017. For now, all is well. We haven't done anything that could lull you into a false sense of security about being a guaranteed finals side but have banked two wins against opposition that should be around our level by the end of Round 23, and nobody in their right mind is going to complain about that.

2021 Allen Jakovich Medal votes
5 - Clayton Oliver
4 - Christian Salem
3 - Kysaiah Pickett
2 - Adam Tomlinson
1 - Christian Petracca 

Apologies to Gawn, Jordon, Lever, McDonald, Neal-Bullen, Spargo and Viney.

The defenders only lasted a week a top, midfielders are back, probably never to leave again.

8 - Clayton Oliver
5 - Steven May (LEADER: Marcus Seecamp Medal for Defender of the Year)
4 - Jake Lever, Christian Salem
3 - Christian Petracca, Kysaiah Pickett
2 - Adam Tomlinson
1 - Charlie Spargo

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Year
Poor old Ed Langdon, kicks an absolute pearler that looked hard to beat in Round 1, then concedes the clubhouse lead by half time the following week. Replacing him in the box seat is Pickett for his bonkers effort in the second quarter. He went this way, he went that way, St. Kilda's defenders had no bloody idea what was going to happen next, then he kicked the cover off it on the run. Delightful stuff. For a weekly prize he wins a year's supply of haircare products to run through that lovely barnet.

Finally, Channel 7 found the perfect use for Brian Taylor. Not bricking him up behind a wall, but including GEE GOD BOY WOW! into the ad for the game, then not having him on air. Like a one-hit-wonder singer, we don't want to hear anything new, just keep doing the classics.  

Given that the combined scores weren't even at a 2018 level, the commentators mercifully didn't spend half the game tossing off over how good the new rules are. It also helps that James Brayshaw wasn't there, he's making a concerted bid to win our inaugural Mr. Spectacle award by tonguing Steve Hocking's chocbox whenever six goals are kicked in an opening quarter.

The Mr (or Ms. - your move Caro) Spectacle award will be given out on Grand Final day to the media personality who best fetishes the idea of spectacle. So far it's Brayshaw vs Gerard Whateley, who went off on one about Essendon not getting to choose which home ground they played at in Round 1. Send your nominations to the usual address.

Crowd Watch
For a team that has an even longer history of tragedy than us, St. Kilda has a lot of celebrity supporters. Regulars Shane Warne and Eric Bana were joined by Ed Sheeran, roped into feigning an interest by the late Michael Gudinski. When was the last time we had a genuine celebrity take interest? Hamish Blake had a bit of a run while Jim Stynes was President, we assume Natalie Portman wasn't huddled in front of the TV at 1am in Los Angeles (UPDATE - she's apparently in Sydney and was no doubt watching on 7Mate), and I don't think either of these people still resides on Planet Earth:

Also, whoever is responsible for the giant, googly-eyed Gawn head in the cheersquad is a genius. I haven't seen anything that terrifying at the footy since Neeld was coach:

Next Week
It's GWS on Sunday night in Canberra. Why not. I know they're contractually obligated to play games in the ACT but it remains unusual that a professional side who made a Grand Final two years ago (albeit forgetting to show up and play) is punted off a ground now named after them in favour of a parade where you have to pay silent homage to woodchoppers. This is appropriate because most of their home games are played without noise and the club should be dismantled with an axe. 

I wanted to know if the famous Blacktown International Sportspark, host of one lightly attended game in 2012, was still a feasible venue and discovered that "After Blacktown Council spent $27 million on an AFL stadium & training facility, GWS abandoned the facility." Perhaps not. 

We should just be happy to play in Canberra early, not mid-season where the temperature feels like nine below zero. It's a ground we've been traditionally crap at, pissing in a six goal win against North on debut, then losing every other time except for an underwhelming win over the first year Giants. All that means nothing now, and for the third week in a row we've got the chance to climb the ladder by sticking a foot on the head of another team around our level. This means we've got every chance of winning but you wouldn't stake your house on it. 

Watch out if the 2-0 start leads to a string of positive media and player profiles, that's usually the first sign things are about to go tits up. Also, be wary of the Giants being dragged through the media by their ankles after being (at the time of writing) belted by Freo.

As for changes, unless there's something tactical that goes right over my head I don't see the need to mess with a winning formula. I'm frustrated by Brayshaw, and as much as people rightfully pointed out last week that he's not being played as an inside midfielder I would ask if that means we're obliged to play him somewhere else. Likewise there may be an argument for Hibberd over Hunt, but for now I'm going to stick with a solid but unspectacular winning formula.

If anything, there might be something to be said for changing our forward structure. I want to keep fast-tracking Jackson's development in a half-decent side (as opposed to when we used to slaughter the kids - hello Jimmy Toumpas - by dropping them in quicksand and expecting everything to turn out ok), but we need to take focus off McDonald. It's a left-field option, but Daw is kicking goals out of his arse in the seconds, including another three in pissing rain against North this week. The way their seniors are going fixing up the players who can't get a game isn't much of a recommendation, but might be worth giving him a spin at some point. Probably not this week. 

IN: Nil
OUT: Nil
LUCKY: Brayshaw, Hunt
UNLUCKY: Daw, Melksham, Hibberd

Speaking of the reserves, any chance of starting that competition proper? You've got 22 teams (!), playing 16 games (?) across a 19 round season (!?) which doesn't start until the week of AFL Round 5. I know for our purposes that practice matches are as good as playing for premiership points, but you get the feeling they're not taking the poor old VFA/VFL/East Coast Frankencompetition very seriously.

Final Thoughts
When you're unbeaten after two rounds without having played particularly well there's only one thing to say:

1 comment:

  1. Good sign: Slamming on 3 goals to finish the second quarter. In past seasons we would have fallen behind and spent the rest of the match trying to limit the damage.
    Worrying sign: Leading by 3 or 4 goals in the final quarter and continuing to play at breakneck speed. The ball was pinging straight out of our attacking 50 way too quickly. A more experienced team would have taken some time off the clock. We were a little lucky that St Kilda's disposal skills are worse than ours.
    Keep in mind St Kilda were missing half a dozen guys who took them to finals last year (Carlisle, Hannebery, Geary, Ryder, Marshall, ?Kent) plus the veterans they recruited in the off season (Crouch, Frawley who I thought announced his retirement). So I'm not getting too carried away about the Demons yet.


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