Round and Round They Go. Where They Stop, Nobody Knows.

Those lucky enough to attend the Almanac lunch on Friday afternoon were entertained by the  many reminiscences of 1960 Brownlow Medallist John Schultz.

The very gentlemanly Mr Schultz spoke at length about John Kennedy’s famous “Commandoes” of 1961, who set new standards for the day in fitness and endurance. This team was famous for putting discipline above flair. One – possibly apocryphal – tale related to “Kanga” Kennedy being told of a new recruit who could jump, mark and kick with the best of them. “Kanga” was reported to have replied to the effect, “never mind, we’ll fix that up soon enough”.

This story seemed all too appropriate to what transpired later in the evening.

St. Kilda and the Western Bulldogs entered the season as two of the most highly touted flag chances, and this encounter was much anticipated. As an impartial observer, I would be one of many left fairly underwhelmed by what I witnessed, despite the close result.

In so many ways, this was a repeat or their gruelling, close fought Preliminary Final from last year, minus one very prominent component- that being Nick Riewoldt. The primary concern of both sides was pressure, pressure, pressure. Lacking their skipper as a forward focal point, the Saints were hell-bent on preventing the Doggies from getting their running game in motion. For their part, the Dogs seemed intent on matching the Saints in tackling and contesting discipline.

These factors combined to create a match that almost defies description: at least in polite company. With the majority of players perpetually following the ball, it most resembled a hyper-charged schoolyard match, played at twenty times the speed ever contemplated during recess.

Even though they led for the vast majority of the night, and would possibly be feeling robbed at the end, it was hard to escape the feeling the Doggies had opted to play on the Saints’ terms.

The nearest equivalent that I can think of to the Saint’s apparent game strategy is those archetypal Italian soccer teams of decades past. These teams were based on impeccable defensive structure and discipline, with a sudden counter- attack ability designed to take advantage of opposition mistakes. A 1-0 win seemed preferred to a 4-3 victory under this philosophy.

Following this pattern, though the Dogs led through much of the last quarter by less than 3 goals, the nature of the game encouraged you to think they were in control. But we were just lulled, and when the Saints counter-strike snatched victory, most spectators would have been as dumfounded as the Bulldogs.

Games like this one leave players with so little time to execute skills, that they will never be easy on the eye. The intensity of actual or implied pressure causes even the most highly skilled to muff and fumble. Only split-second reflexes and judgement enable the ball to move through the maul. Even when a set shot is created, it is usually at the end of an intense passage, and player exhaustion increases the shot’s difficulty.

In this hothouse tempo, the only easy possessions to be gained came in the backline, when time was bought whist paths forward were assessed. This meant defenders of both sides racked up huge, but largely meaningless, tallies of stats. The really telling contributions tended to pass in the blink of an eye.

There are many games played nowadays that seem designed only to please the coaches. This was one of them. With so much talent in either side, it is a disappointment to see them subjugate flair for other priorities. But it’s not like there weren’t crap games in the eighties; it’s just that most of them weren’t televised on Friday night

Besides, I think bemoaning the current state of football is a fairly pointless exercise. Successful teams have usually been based on defence, and trends will invariably follow success. As long as the perception remains that this type of intricate, mad-scientist-coach game plan brings results, we’re likely to see a lot more of it, whether we like it or not.

But is this style really paying off? Herein lies hope for a better spectacle.

The Bulldogs have demonstrated that they can produce exhilarating, fluid ball movement that slices up oppositions. Yet, when faced with the Saints in recent times, they’ve been dragged into the sort of dour struggle that took place last night. In answer to the Saints grim discipline, they seem determined to match like for like, even at the expense of seizing the moment.

To me, this was epitomised in the final term when Daniel Giansiracusa, who played an otherwise outstanding game, found himself in a moment of space, within range of goal, but opted to pass to what seemed a safer option- only to see the ball swept away. Drilled-in team disciplines over-rode natural instincts at the crucial moment. This is precisely the sort of inflexibility which has haunted Neil Craig’s Crows in recent finals. No one seems prepared to take a risk when required.

Now it could be that these criticisms are actually a tribute to the Saints’ ability to dictate the terms of the game. They certainly shape as one of the formidable defensive sides the game has seen. But will this be enough for them? After dominating last season, the finals series saw them become increasingly negative, and reliant on the skipper for scoring. A wet Grand Final day certainly didn’t help their cause, but it wasn’t their only problem.

Neither side in this encounter really maximised the opportunities they created. Both seemed so intent on picking their way through defensive structures that a longer option remained ignored. Risk-averse football may win a lot of games, but I’m yet to be convinced it can win a premiership.

To the loss of Riewoldt, the Saints seem determined to grind it out, awaiting his return. It remains to be seen if Saint Nick makes it back in time to make a telling contribution this season. You can’t question their commitment or discipline, but they would want to have a plan B come crunch time.

As to the Bulldogs, they are yet to convince as a side with the nerve to take advantage of their much-vaunted “premiership window”.

You wouldn’t think the other main contenders saw anything in this game they weren’t prepared for.

Western Bulldogs  2.2  3.7  6.8  6.10 (46)
St Kilda  1.2  2.3  4.3  7.7 (49

About John Butler

John Butler has fled the World's Most Livable Car Park and now breathes the rarefied air of the Ballarat Plateau. For his sins, he has been a Carlton member for more than 30 years.

Comments

  1. Peter Flynn says:

    JB,

    I also enjoyed John Schultz. A thorough gentleman. Working on the morning of the 1961 VFL GF and then taking part in a big after-match with the victors. How times have changed?

    I would’ve loved to hear him speak about the 1961 carnival in Brisbane. The WA/Vic match was a ripper apparently.

    John Schultz made the All-Australian team in that year.

    I didn’t see last night’s match thank goodness.

    Can a team that takes part in a 7.7 to 6.10 borefest win the flag? We wait with interest.

  2. JB – yes it was a very enjoyable lunch. Joh Schultz spoke of the old days and it made me think that some of the things in footy from yesteryear would seem so foreign today – like the players mingling after the game.

    Great wqrap on the game. I was puzzled about what I was watching. I wasan’t sure I enjoyed the footy, but I do have to say that I anjoyed the contest. Its a dangerous strategy to grind the game out because if your opponent gets on even a brief role the game could slip from your fingers.

    I think that a team that can attack (Collingwood, Geelong, Dogs (usually) and even Freo and the Swans) are likely to prevail in September.

  3. Dave Nadel says:

    You are absolutely right Dips. I have just come back from the Pies/Blues match. Obviously I am feeling triumphalist because the Magpies won, but the other nice thing was that I saw a game of Australian Rules Football.

    Both sides were playing Footy. The “Clutchball” Game that the Saints forced on the Doggies on Friday is not my idea of football. I said to a couple of my mates after the game that Collingwood has won every football match that they played this year. The game they lost, to St Kilda, wasn’t football.

    I don’t know whether the Pies are good enough to win the flag this year, but if they are not, I sincerely hope the side that does win is a side playing football not clutchball!

  4. Peter Flynn says:

    I’ve had enough of Ross Lyon.

    The way he talks, his footy-speak, the very idea of process-product football and that most nauseating and annoying phrases ‘Saints footy’.

    Yuk with a capital Y.

  5. Flynnie – “Saints Footy” ahhhhhh. I also hate the way Ross Lyon walks. Its very confronting.

  6. John Butler says:

    Dips

    You’re right. Lyon does have a funny walk.

    Dave, it’s going to be an interesting to see what kind of football is premiership football this year.

  7. John Butler says:

    If anyone out there still cares to revisit this game, I think Leigh Matthews (who may know a thing or two) gives a beautiful analysis of some pertinent points on the AFL website,

    Beating the Flood

  8. David Downer says:

    JB,

    The Italian soccer link is on the money. At quarter time, for those of us at the game, the expectations were lowered and we knew what we were in for – so an engrossing dour wait-wait-wait type battle wasnt “as bad” to grasp. Thank god the flood-gates eventually opened for my mob …if they hadn’t …ehhhh?

    As a meaningless footnote – the Serie A side Sampdoria combine the Saints/Dogs colours – a royal blue kit with red, white and black stripes. The coaching staff at the “blucerchiati” would have no doubt applauded the defensive minded artistry of both sides last Friday!

    I’m not sensing much love for Ross Lyon here …if I step back from my Moorabin/Seaford bias – yes I can see why he would distress the non-Saint …yet it probably equates to the amount of affection I have for one M.Thompson. Him and his two flags, blast you!

  9. John Butler says:

    David

    I don’t think I have as much of a problem with ‘ol Ross as others at this site. Certainly, under his reign, the Saints have played in more than their fair share of ugly games. But he’s brought many admirable things as well. The Saints certainly exhibit a discipline that’s not been their usual forte. I grew up in Moorabbin, and this side bears no relation to the ones I watched in the 80’s.

    But I reckon he’s in danger of overdoing the defensive mindset. The footy the Saints played in the first half of last season was a superb combination of stellar defence mixed with attacking ability. But when the finals rolled around, I reckon they went into their shells, became too defensive and Roo-focused.

    With the talent at their disposal, I think they could have more strings to their bow. Having said that, they didn’t miss by much last year, and are going all right so far in this season. But their style of play means they’re always on a knife’s edge. Will they hold their nerve when they really need to?

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