Land of the Long (Red) White (and Black) Cloud.

The New Zealand experiment.

 

I think three years is a pretty decent sample size isn’t it? So what do we think? It’s a failure isn’t it? It was incredibly ambitious, it required a great deal of faith to get it this far and it doesn’t feel like it’s paying off. Most of the talk since Saturday’s ‘appetizer to the main event’ time-slot is that it should be binned. The Kiwi’s don’t care about it, an empty Cake-tin proves it.

 

But hold on there a second. I’m not ready to back down on this yet. And my reasoning is actually more complicated than you might imagine! St.Kilda need this and I’m here to tell you why….Actually, grap a cuppa. This might take a while.

 

Let me share with you a theory I have been postulating for a while now-

 

St. Kilda are ‘Bizarro-Hawthorn.’

 

Now, bear with me here, while I push the Seinfeld analogy even further out from the shore: St.Kilda are George Costanza.

 

“Up is down, black is white.” They are the complete opposite of the Hawks. Every time a decision needs to be made, Hawthorn makes the right call and the Saints, well:  “…(e)very decision I’ve ever made in my entire life has been wrong. My life is the complete opposite of everything I want it to be.”

 

Sound harsh? Well perhaps it is, after-all, George is easily the greatest miserabilist this side of a Victor Hugo novel. But allow me to present my case anyway.

 

There are plenty of connections between the two sides over their history, the most obvious being the epic 1971 Grand Final. The real thread that unites both sides though is the great Allan Jeans. Yabby profoundly changed every person he met, he was that kind of man. He was an oracle for every one that came after him at both clubs.

 

None of this is really necessary for my argument though. You can easily link pretty much any two sides in the comp and create a shared history if you dig far enough (and want to make it happen desperately enough.) With Hawthorn and St.Kilda, it is the recent history of boardroom decisions that will make my point.

 

The tale of the tape can be told in three key calls-

  • Waverley
  • Tasmania
  • Moorabbin/Glenferrie

 

Hawthorn and St.Kilda were co-tenants at Waverley when the league came calling to inform them that they were closing shop and moving on from the once ‘showcase’ venue. The Hawks weren’t well pleased and immediately pointed out that they were quite happy with playing at Waverley- It suited their fans, who lived predominantly that side of the city, it averaged decent attendances and the plan to move on to a smaller ‘boutique’ stadium felt limiting.

 

Hawthorn, under Ian Dicker, told the AFL that they didn’t want to move. Because of their stance, they made sure they got a very nice deal to play at the ‘G and as a side benefit got use of a state-of-the-art training venue. St.Kilda, meanwhile, simply went along with the league eviction and sealed their fate by signing on as a Docklands tenant.

 

Yes, that is clearly a simplistic summation of a complex series of events but the results are pretty clear aren’t they? Hawthorn play at the home of football and train at Waverley. St.Kilda are locked into a stadium contract that is, well frankly disastrous, and train at a state-of-the-art-facility in Seaford that is unloved, mainly because of its distance from everywhere.

 

So, the question that bugs me is this- What would have been the outcome had the Saints joined forces with Hawthorn over Waverley? What if, when the league came calling, they found two sides united in their belief that Waverley was a viable venue? How would that have played out?

 

While you ruminate upon that, lets move on to point two shall we?

 

AFL in Tasmania has always been a great idea. It is one of the heartlands of the game, the birthplace of some of the greatest talent we’ve seen (Baldock and Hudson for our purposes) and, most vitally, a proud footballing state desperate for involvement in the national comp.

 

St.Kilda were a perfect fit- Ian Stewart and the Doc are royalty of the club to begin with. The supporter-base was there; all that was required was for the Saints to embrace the state.

 

It never happened.

 

Instead they were actively truculent, constantly pointing out how they couldn’t win in Launceston. It was treated like a chore by Grant Thomas’ sides and as soon as they could get out of the deal they did. Hawthorn replaced them and immediately worked with the state to embrace the concept. They worked hard to win hearts and minds, they didn’t force it, rather they charmed and cajoled. Hawthorn fought to make it successful every step of the journey. Right down to making a trip to Tassie part of their premiership celebrations.

 

You cannot simply plonk the mountain down in the middle of a plain and then expect the locals to approve. You have to spend the time to explain to them why they need the mountain. Which is bringing us closer to New Zealand (we’ll get there I promise.)

 

Hawthorn’s spiritual home is Glenferrie. Of course, like all suburban venues, the Hawks outgrew it as a playing venue, yet as a training ground it still somehow kept its mystique. Turning up there on a Thursday night, you always sensed a storied history. Glenferrie was always imposing. While, Moorabbin might have only been the Saints venue since the ‘60’s, it also managed to feel like home in the same manner. Sure it didn’t feel as imposing after the sprinklers were turned off and the Animal Enclosure fell silent but it did hold a collective pride. Moorabbin was only unloved by the poor souls who visited and that’s why it will always be loved by the faithful. Unlike Glenferrie, with its beautiful Art Deco stand, Moorabbin was made by the fans. To stand on the terraces and watch Plugger tear them a new one was electrifying because of the noise. Going to training nights there stirred up those ghosts and warmed your heart.

 

Both St.Kilda and Hawthorn left their spiritual homes for purely pragmatic reasons: The promise of brand, spanking new training venues worthy of elite professional outfits. But while the Hawks moved to Waverley and erected a statue of John Kennedy, St.Kilda agreed to move to Frankston, then pulled out of that deal to move even further out to Seaford. Hawthorn kept everyone on-side on the way to Waverley, St.Kilda set the bridge on fire while they were halfway across it.

 

Now the Saints are rebuilding that charred bridge back to Moorabbin with tails between their legs. They initially attempted to horn in on Cricket Victoria’s Junction Oval refit (and frankly, even as a Saints supporter I’m glad they missed out there, Victorian cricket desperately needs a cricket specific venue) but now they realize there is no other options. There is nothing wrong with Seaford as a training venue. The concern is how far it is from…well places footballers like to live. As a venue it has never really felt like it was embraced. There’s certainly no Doc Baldock statue overlooking the ground. (That’s in Latrobe, Tasmania by the way.) It feels like the Saints are finding the going too tough at Seaford and are simply packing it in. Again.

 

So back to the mountain then: St.Kilda boldly went into the unknown: To play games of Aussie Rules for premiership points across the ditch. To boldly go where none have bothered to go before (outside of pre-season and exhibition matches.)

 

The first year saw a solid crowd and a great deal of positive exposure. Years two and three have been less positive. The novelty factor that pumped up the concept in the first year could clearly only ever survive in that first year. If this is going to be an on-going concept, the Saints have to build it from the ground up. It is the mistake that often occurs when a sporting team puts themselves into a new locale, be it permanently or part time. What makes you think that the locals should support you? Just because you’re there on the ground, doesn’t make you worthy of support. You have to forge a relationship and you can’t fake it. Sporting fans worldwide can sniff out insincerity from a mile. It is after all, why they’re fans.

 

Sport rewards loyalty and as anyone who has attempted to select a team outside of the sports they grew up with knows, it is fraught with danger. In the early 90’s I made a decision to get into rugby league. I tuned into a game with the express intent that the winner of my first viewing of a game of league would, from then on, be MY team. To have and to hold, from that day forward, never shall we part.

 

I became a Manly supporter.

 

It still makes me shudder. It was only an extraordinary act of the sporting Gods that saved me. Firstly the Sea Eagles merged with their bitter rivals North Sydney and moved north up the coast. It felt wrong and I was torn. Thankfully Melbourne were given the Storm soon after. I am very loyal (I still own my Manly jersey) but the turmoil of the Super League war opened up a very tiny window where loyalty was stripped away and we were all naked as we watched our teams taken from us and reformed, blatantly, for commercial purposes, to be given back to us like we weren’t supposed to notice. I took the opportunity to take on the Storm as my own team.

 

St.Kilda, obviously, is my first love but if I lived in Wellington why would I support them? The Storm won us over early by winning the premiership. Nothing forges a supporter base quicker than being successful. Certainly, that’s not the only way to convince fans to get on board but winning will always beat losing if you’re looking to cement support. Put simply though, if I’m a Welligtonian, I’m hesitant to fall in love until I know my date. Give me a couple of years to get to know this side first will you? I don’t put out on the first game anymore you know.

 

My greatest concern is that St.Kilda will fall away in New Zealand like they did in Tasmania. This project only works if the Saints act less like ‘Bizarro-Hawthorn’ and more like the real thing. It might start with the simplest of acts- If the Saints are going to have a specially designed NZ Guernsey, which is a solid idea, should it not be the same every season? Three years in and the Saints have had three separate designs. It’s no secret that fans identify with the jumper of their team above and beyond anything else. That’s the one thing you can never take from them, they pledge their allegiance to the colours, not the faces. If we want this New Zealand project to work shouldn’t we start with giving the locals a jumper to get behind? I might also suggest it should be less Maori-inspired and more focused on the ANZAC connection. Given that the Waikato Chiefs have a very strong focus on teaching and connecting with the Maori culture they represent, it feels patronising of the Saints to simply add a ‘tribal design’ (erroneously the first year at that) to their ‘look.’ I would suggest that the guernsey we wear should be all-black. I mean that’s pretty obvious isn’t it?

 

The key to making New Zealand work is simple: When everything you think is wrong, please St.Kilda, simply do the opposite.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Gillian Coote says

    Iagree now to get the ones in charge to listen good luck with that!! Go Saints!

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