The Kids are Alright

The St. Pat’s First XVIII entered  season 2010 with twelve of the previous year’s  Shield  Final team including sublime marking talents Nick O’Brien, Hayden Walters, Jake Dunne and Matt Twiggy James. Coach Howard Clark had added to this mix, an effective and mobile ruckman with the ability to push forward in Tom McDonald and the promising NT indigenous forward Jake Neade.

The theme of the year was Unfinished Business as many of the team of 2009 still felt an empty promise in being denied by Assumption in the shortened last quarter of the Shield final of 2009, at the time an event of some controversy. Assumption, however, were the better team that day but this year St. Pat’s sensed they were closer to the prize.

After spending a season writing about the team of 2009 in Wednesday Warriors, I caught up with the 2010 team on three occasions.

The first was on a perfect late autumn afternoon at Heyington where they met with traditional foe St. Kevin’s College. For reasons best known to themselves the home side had again rested some of their TAC reps, leaving the remainder of their side easy prey for the clinical movement and clean marking of the St. Pat’s team. Although St. Kevin’s threatened at times with their run through the middle, they had no answer to the tall boys from Ballarat with their sticky hands and swift counter-attacks, going down by ten goals. With the return of Wallis and Liberatore St. Kevin’s would set themselves for another tilt at the APS and arch-rival Xavier but it was not a confidence boosting day for them.

I didn’t see the St. Pat’s boys again until the semi-finals of the Shield at TEAC Oval in June where they took on St. Bernard’s Essendon. Sitting in the stands with old St. Bernard’s player and Knacker extraordinaire Paul Daffey, I witnessed another powerful display by St. Pat’s who delivered a twelve goal hiding to the boys from Essendon in tough, windy conditions. A few things of significance had emerged. St. Pat’s marking was again a feature at both ends of the ground. McDonald’s presence in the ruck had balanced the side so that O’Brien and Walters could play their natural positions. Both dominated them with Walters endlessly repelling from defence as a kind of ruck-roving sweeper and O’Brien doing what he does best, marking fluidly at that text-book highest point, wheeling, penetrating and when within range, kicking goals. Twiggy, the big-game player of last season came off five minutes into the first with a rolled ankle following an unforgiving tackle. He spent the afternoon red-eyed, morose and on crutches, imagining that he might miss the final. Jake Neade was once again quiet and I wondered what all the fuss was about. People often tag young indigenous players as “the next Michael Long” or these days “the next Cyril Rioli.” Such premature speculation is not always a player’s ally. Although such lofty expectations seemed to be building around Neade before and after his migration south, the boy seemed out of sorts both times I’d watched him. But St. Pat’s finished the day bursting with confidence and belief. Last year they thought they were half a chance in the final. This year seemed different. This year they knew they could win.

Most of the St. Pat’s boys were doing recovery at the bay by the second half of the second semi and so missed perhaps one of the most thrilling schoolboy matches ever played. Penleigh and Essendon Grammar spent most of a rain-drenched and windy afternoon holding off a determined and fleet-footed St. Joseph’s in a compelling arm-wrestle. By the last change PEGS, led by young ‘veterans’ Josh Toy and Matthew Watson held a nine point lead with St. Joseph’s coming home with a two goal breeze. PEGS coach Ken Fletcher had switched his ace, the Gold Coast contracted Toy back and forward depending on the breeze. In the last it seemed the whole team was to stonewall and rather than trying to ‘win’ the game, settling upon a determined flood. As a result the entire quarter played out as a pitched battle in St. Joseph’s forward half with constant congestion and boundary throw ins. Out of the chaos emerged a dread-locked hero in Luke Dalhaus. In an almost Koutafides or Goodes-like final act the midfielder seemed to be in everything. Emerging from the quagmire of the PEGS zone he managed to contrive repeated scoring opportunities. At first the ball was barrelled forward for a contested mark and goal which brought the margin to four points. Over the next five rain-soaked minutes where it was becoming increasingly clear that the next goal would win the game, Dalhaus stole the ball from clearances three times and found enough space for a pressured snap. Each one faded just right or left. The full grandstand held its breath in anticipation each time. The margin became one point.

With two minutes to play PEGS at last managed to work the ball out of defence and into their own fifty for some much needed relief. Then with just one minute left on the clock the ball was thrown in for the last time next to the PEGS goal as all seemed lost for the Geelong boys. From the clearance they drove the ball in hope to the centre square only to find the towering Matthew Watson waiting to mark decisively in an act that seemed to all but claim victory. But then fate intervened, with the umpire awarding a downfield free against PEGS for an infringement in the pack. The ball was turned over from a dazed and confused Watson in the middle with less than thirty seconds to play. With the second  last kick of the day St. Joseph’s lobbed a final prayer into their forward fifty. A great pack formed and fell, collapsing outward and somehow, in the middle of it, Dalhaus stood, with the ball on his chest. With the stand at fever pitch, the siren sounded and every soul watched both on and off the ground in a mixture of hope, horror and fascination as the Geelong star went back thirty out directly in front. Would nerves claim him in the last act of the game or did he have the poise to kick it?

Slowly and deliberately Dalhaus walked his line and kicked through it and all eyes turned to the goal umpire who simply stood and leaned  back and the Geelong boys crushed together in fitful delirium. The PEGS players slumped with heads hung, some lay on the ground too shocked to move. It seemed as though they should have had the victory but then fortune had favoured the bravery of St. Joseph’s. It was a game which showed at once the passion and desire of schoolboy football in full expression in both the euphoria and misery on either side of the ledger, hanging by a single act, a single decision, a single straight kick.  Players like Josh Toy and Luke Dalhaus may go on to bigger stages and higher stakes in careers beyond their school days but I’ll bet they never forget this moment.

Unfortunately for St. Joseph’s that’s where the fairytale ended. When they met St. Pat’s at the MCG a week later, the Ballarat boys took the field with a steely resolve. Clark had decided this year to keep things very business-like and less emotional. Everyone has a job to do, go out and do it.

After a tense opening quarter O’Brien began to test the Geelong defence with his mobility and marking poise. His first goal came from an almost balletic spin from a marking contest where he ran and slotted a goal from a close range angle. This got the side going and despite the run of St. Joey’s and the creativity of Dalhaus, the St. Pat’s defence proved almost impenetrable.  Twiggy had got himself up for the game but was relatively quiet in his forward pocket with his movement seemingly impaired. Brad Crouch was superb in the midfield and O’Brien continued to wreak havoc in the forward line. By the half he had kicked three and St. Pat’s had opened up a five goal break.

In the third quarter Jake Neade came alive. Offering a dummy and dance step, followed by a goal that would have made Alan Didak happy. He then kept doing the sort of unpredictable things that befuddled the Geelong defence and opened up more scoring chances for St. Pat’s. Each time he caused a goal he was lifted up by a huddle of giant St. Pat’s boys like a victory talisman. He must have seemed to St. Joseph’s the final straw.

O’Brien finished the afternoon with five goals, brilliantly leading the side to a fifty-one point victory. He remained modest afterward and talked of the importance of the victory to his family, his school, his community. If the talent scouts are not watching him at the moment, this performance on this stage should have revived their interest. Neade greeted the victory with a rebel yell, along with many of his team-mates. He seemed to revel in winning and being a valued and respected team-member. Clark has again managed to organise a team with a positive culture and confidence, a desire to play for one-another, a team which this time had all the deadly component parts.

Maybe some of these names will be better known down the track or perhaps they will end up on farms, small-businesses or in apprenticeships, playing in the suburbs or country towns where they feel most at home, remembering their days of glory. It’s what Clark always says before every big game. “I want you to have experiences you’ll remember for the rest of your life.” And the things we do when we are young often seem to burn most brightly in the memory.

About james gilchrist

James Gilchrist breathes Collingwood.

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