Three rounds into this strange season and we’re sitting second on the ladder courtesy of a brutal dismantlement of the Bulldogs; a forgettable arm wrestle against the Tigers; and most recently, a very solid deconstruction of the Saints. Our performances thus far haven’t been perfect, the contest against the Tigers being one of the more forgettable spectacles of football in recent memory, but on balance we’ve been more impressive than not given the strange preparation.
There has been quite a bit to like on an individual and collective basis, despite not knowing exactly how to judge anything that unfolds given the uncertain climate surrounding this season.
The surreality of empty stadiums appears set to remain in Victoria for a while yet, so our lads look destined to ply their trade in little to no atmosphere — which hasn’t seemed to bother them thus far. The atmosphere was suitable at our round one opener, pairing perfectly with what unfolded on the field, which had all the hallmarks of a training drill. That match was around three months ago now, so I won’t spend any more time on it given the haziness of my recollection.
The draw against the Tigers was a different kettle of fish, although it started in similar fashion to how we finished with the Bulldogs. We were all over Richmond in the first quarter, crafting some eye-catching passages as we switched between a short kicking possession game to braver transitions incorporating quick movement by hand. To be fair, Richmond didn’t appear to be switched on in the first quarter, but we still managed to capitalise on their slow start — and it was a good thing that we did.
The next two quarters were largely dictated by the Tigers, who began to find their feet and deny us the ability to retain possession when attempting to rebound. Our defence held up well, especially given that they found themselves dealing with repeat entries, but when attempting to rebound we were often forced to kick long to contests — a situation that plays into Richmond’s hands, as they quite well organised when setting up a wall through the likes of Vlastuin and Grimes.
The game deteriorated into a scrap, perhaps a byproduct of some rust after the lockdown hiatus. We had some rare chances throughout the second and third quarters, but the reduced opportunities were exacerbated by an inability to finish with class — De Goey and Phillips being two of the culprits. The
For the most part, it felt like we were holding back the floodgates throughout the middle of the match, a task that our back six in particular were superb at performing. We managed to work our way off the ropes in the final quarter, increasing our share of possession a little more than the previous two quarters and manufacturing a few more opportunities as a result. Ultimately however, we only managed to return three behinds in the entire second half – which raised questions over our potency – but fortunately, kept the Tigers from scoring a major of their own in the last quarter, providing us with the consolation of two points.
It was a dour game and when combined with the canned crowd noise, during the flattest of passages it had a quality not unlike sensory deprivation. Prior to Richmond’s clash with Hawthorn, most Pies fans were, if not happy, then relieved to escape with at least two points against the reigning premier. A week later when the Hawks took apart the Tigers, the retrospective view suggested that we missed a golden opportunity.
A week later and it was the Saints on the MCG.
As is often the case with teams who have undergone a rebuild or, as with St Kilda, had one extremely busy off-season at the trade table, there is often an early season infatuation by commentators and “neutral” onlookers. This was evident amidst the commentary team on Saturday, however it wasn’t too long before we gained ascendancy and switched the narrative from one of “what about these new look Saints?” to “well, they’ve still got some work to do.”
Similar to the week before, our first half was vastly superior in terms of scoreboard impact. However, whilst we only managed two goals in the second half, unlike the week before we still controlled a majority of the play but lost our polish when finishing. Given the months of lockdown and unorthodox preparation that the players have had, which persists with restrictions during and outside of training, it is hard to gauge the conditioning of our team and you would suspect that they’re not as cherry ripe as they otherwise could be.
Of individuals, Pendlebury and Sidebottom remain our major ball winners through the middle of the ground. Sidebottom was huge against Richmond in the first half, but appears to remain susceptible when teams send someone to sit on him. Despite entering the twilight of his career, Pendlebury remains a class above most, often opening the play up with his vision and evasiveness. His ability to hold onto the ball for that second longer than most in order to let the play unfold and release the best option has been key in setting up several scores from stoppages.
At this point though, I feel Taylor Adams is a player worthy of some specific praise, not only for his start to the season but his emergence as a leader over the last couple of years. Adams has been something of a whipping boy owing to his historically volatile disposal by foot, but I feel a lot of the angst was borne from his arrival being facilitated via the trading of Heath Shaw, during a particularly tense period of the Buckley transition.
The criticism of Adams’ faults had been fair in many respects, as he could often cough the ball up in particularly dangerous spots and thus, undo a lot of his good work inside the contest. Whilst I confess that I still have my heart in my mouth when Tay is distributing the pill across half-back, it has to be said that he’s obviously put some work into polishing up his kicking. This season, his kicking has featured a little more thought and ‘touch’ than was previously apparent. Just as important, he has been managing to push forward and hit the scoreboard with regularity, finishing quite well on either side of his body.
And of course, In terms of on-field leadership, Adams is the standard-bearer.
The most cohesive and impressive unit within our team at the moment is clearly our back six, with the likes of Moore, Roughead, Howe, Crisp, Maynard and Noble gelling perfectly at the moment. Whilst our overall form has had periods of indifference, our defensive line has held up admirably, particularly during the one time they found themselves under siege against Richmond.
Noble is the most vulnerable link in that chain in terms of team selection, with Quaynor vying for a spot and Varcoe also still in the ranks and switched to the half-back line. Thus far though, Noble hasn’t really done too much to warrant being dropped and has managed to provide us with a little bounce when required, not to mention the fact that he plays the game with the right intensity.
I’m still keen to get games and development into Quaynor though, who I suspect may have a higher ceiling if he develops as we hope. I’m also mindful that his year will be something of a write-off for many developing players sitting outside the 22.
Of those players currently struggling, Will Hoskin-Elliott put in an improved performance on the weekend but is yet to rekindle the impact that he had in 2018. Phillips seems a little lost being played at half-forward and De Goey is currently far from the force he once was. Jordan appears to have lost some finesse when finishing forward of centre, an issue that crept in last year.
Josh Thomas was correctly switched out for Stephenson after failing to fire a shot early this year, but the truth was he has struggled for form for a lot longer. JT was a revelation in 2018, returning 38 goals as part of a dynamic and rather orthodox forward line, but after looking a step off the pace in our Grand Final defeat, he seemed to carry some mental scarring into 2019. He went from being a player who made the most out of every half-opportunity, to one who just couldn’t get on the end of those key moments.
His need for a sabbatical outside of the senior team was driven home in the dying seconds of our clash against Richmond, when he had a golden opportunity to execute a fairly standard 20 metre field kick to an open Brown who could have won us the game, but shanked what was only his 5th disposal of the game.
We’re getting games into our father/sons at the moment, with Daicos and the Brown boys featuring in all three games this year. Out of the three it is Daicos who has impressed the most and appears to be establishing himself within the senior line-up. He’s had some eye catching moments where he has displayed impressive vision by hand and foot, but also exceptional lateral movement in out-stepping would-be tacklers. His disposal is quite polished, so if he continues to find the ball the team should benefit with how he uses it.
Callum Brown has struggled a little to improve upon his impact from previous seasons, but has had passages where he’s displayed good composure in traffic and even impressive core strength in shaking tackles. Tyler is of course in his debut season and as something of a tweener, our expectations on his impact should be rightfully modest. Like his brother thus far, his impact has ebbed and flowed, so it’ll be about growing with each game as onlookers catch glimpses of what he might become.
I do have some reservations as to how this trio will hold-up when the whips get cracking, because despite showing promise they’re still players who are yet to show that they can impose themselves on a contest that might not be going our way. That’s to be expected given their age, but the size of both Josh Daicos and Callum Brown in particular means that they need to sharpen other tools within their kit bag to ensure they can give the opposition something to ponder when things aren’t going our way.
What has become evident over the last fortnight is that we need Mason Cox back to provide a focal point during slow plays. After what was reportedly a solid preseason on the training track, Darcy Cameron has struggled to provide an aerial threat up front. He has been serviceable as a relief ruck for Grundy, but currently Cox represents the preferred option in terms of the threat level he provides within the forward 50 — he draws multiple opponents to the contest and can bring our crumbers into the mix more reliably than Cameron has shown to date.
There’s probably a few points that I intended to cover which I have overlooked, but you’ll have to forgive me as I start shaking off the rust.
Tomorrow night we have an opportunity to atone for what was one of the more disappointing performances I can recall — last year’s Preliminary Final. Taking nothing away from the immensely talented Giants, but the odds were stacked in our favour last year given their outs and being on our home deck, but we completely dropped our bundle. We didn’t play the conditions appropriately, failed to shift gears for three quarters and only got our act together in the final quarter.
There’s nothing emptier than that small amount of pride that sparks momentarily but is free of consolation in such events as your team refusing to go out with a whimper, only to fall short attempting to conquer a calamity of their own making.
Considering the aforementioned performance occurred in a year when we were trying to go one better form the year before, it was close to unforgivable. What’s done is done though and tomorrow night is another game of football. The Giants look set to be bolstered by some A-Grade players in Greene, Whitfield and Kelly. They’ll also be determined to turn their season around after dropping the last two games against opponents they were favourites to topple. They can ill afford to drop another game given the shortened season, so they’re going to throw everything at us — how we stand up to that will likely tell us more about our current side than anything we’ve seen to date this year.