by Richard Lee
Round 18, 2016
Western Bulldogs 4.2, 6.4, 9.6, 9.6 (60)
St Kilda 3.3, 7.4, 10.5, 11.9 (75)
Crowd: 26,532 at Etihad Stadium, Saturday, July 23rd at 7.25pm
As anytime long Saints fan can attest to: it’s in the DNA of us to not believe in lucky breaks, or in the (supposed) even-handedness of the Football Gods. Divine intervention? Nope. It’s just in our nature to dread that moment when we snatch defeat from the jaws of victory; self-sabotage. But things right now are just starting to click.
Seven wins out of nine is good in anyone’s language. The fact that it now contains two scalps – the first of which being the Cats – after Saturday night’s weird win over the Bulldogs, gives it a lot more weight. It has even stirred the wider Football Community enough for us to have gained some proper media coverage in this lull point in the season.
After our premature bubble was burst with a pitiful effort against the Suns, or if you saw our listless efforts against the Dons, you would be forgiven for ignoring our win-loss pattern. I certainly did. It is true though, that good teams find a way and again on Saturday night, it wasn’t exactly a performance laden with highlight reel plays, but one of strength and poise. It was one for the purists.
Whilst never hitting top gear as such, the Dogs did threaten to blow this one open on two separate occasions. Firstly, they had the better of the opening exchanges. This fits with the Saints tendency to start the game like they just rolled out of bed. Except Jack Newnes’ hair hasn’t changed one bit.
The Saints weren’t lacking in intensity, it’s just that the Dogs were moving the ball with a little bit more precision and speed. Jackson Macrae was zipping up and around, Caleb Daniel was bobbing up here and there and Liberatore was the instigator from the engine room. Tom Hickey was on though. His tap work from the get go was on point and then some. However the Dogs enjoyed the better of the territory side of things and were doing a good job at spooking the Saints into enough sloppy errors. I don’t need to remind you who were the main culprits.
Thankfully, the scoreboard wasn’t getting away from the Saints and unlike some previous slow starts (see Gold Coast) the team’s psyche as well as its structure wasn’t wavering in the face of some stern pressure. By and large the Dogs enjoyed the better territory and were more dangerous in the first term, but by the first break their momentum had been arrested enough. Enter the second term and Roo kicked his first with an opportunistic snap on the left, followed by set shot conversions courtesy of assists from Armo and Joey.
The mark Roo took for his second goal was a perfect illustration of what Josh Bruce can’t do right now. He barely had split on Fletcher Roberts, but perfectly timed a shove in the Roberts’ chest at the last minute to setup an easy chest mark for himself. Baroose take note.
Indeed, it could be argued by that by the final siren Riewoldt was essentially the difference between the two sides. Granted, the Dogs forward structure was left with a sizable hole in the shape of Jack Redpath for essentially the entire second half but even to that point it didn’t feel like the Saints lack of height in defence was going to be a thorn in its side. Boyd was rarely sighted, and as the Footscray fans around me pointed out several times, the Dogs were extremely reluctant to get the ball deep to the “hot spots” anyway.
This could be excused in some respects given that none of their bigs were on song, but perhaps what was even more confounding was how little impact the Dogs got from their roaming or more creative smaller types. Dickson kicked a great goal, but didn’t do a lot else. Caleb Daniel’s night progressively got less exciting – his botched mark going back with the flight unattended into the forward 50 in the last term, was perhaps the most poignant illustration of the Dogs being off. They miss Dalhaus.
This isn’t to take anything anyway from the Saints pressure though. It definitely made life difficult for their more fancied opponents. Pressure, after all, has been their MO for a good 18 months now, and it seems like it is only gaining momentum. And though he gets most of his plaudits for his running and carrying, it was Jack Steven who was leading the way on that front with 7 tackles (Dunstan and Armo had 6 each). Gosh, it is still weird to have the word leading and Steven in the same sentence.
And just on the whole pressure MO: the term Saints Footy seems to be back in. I heard Jack Newnes (of The Leadership Group) mention it in one of the post-game videos online. It speaks to the group consolidating an identity, and having a confidence in it. To say that “Saints Footy is back” would be premature and wrong but this current brand doesn’t feel much like Saints Footy 1.0 of the Ross Lyon era. It’s been rebooted and re-tooled into something new and something that seems to have a place in the modern game. Sure, it’s defense-first, but it’s defense that leans more towards fuelling scores and is inherently more proactive.
More evidence of this proactiveness is the positioning and the involvement of the likes of Roberton, Gilbert, Savage, Geary and Dempster. That contingent could be found near enough to the forward 50 arc throughout the game. Roberton in particular, seemed to be the one with the biggest license to roam to wherever he read that he was needed. His exact opponent I couldn’t point out to you. All that considered, he had another great game. He seemed to be at the right position at the right time for the large majority of the time. Geary too, was again very good, following on from a golden game against the Dees.
I’m sure all Saints fans can draw upon times over the last two years when they’ve really been stretching and searching to picture what this time will look like when it’s playing in meaningful games and how it will go about doing so. It now feels safe to say that we’re seeing the first signs of the reality of this. Saturday night wasn’t exactly finals like, but it had an intensity (despite the disappointing crowd number) and an edge that was significant and which asked more of the players. The Seb Ross’, the Dunstans, the Newnes’, the Wrights, et al didn’t look out of place. They took the challenges head on, without getting overzealous or overwhelmed.
For all the positivity of the way in which the younger brigade were handling a hotter and bigger stage, the night’s main drawcard Marcus Bontempelli threatened to take game into one of his oversized hands and crush it. His 5-10 minute purple patch in third term was immense, culminating in a raking 50m goal which almost lifted the Etihad roof off. This all started with Tim Membrey missing a relatively easy shot, which would have extended the Saints lead to 24 points early in the third. From the kick out the Bulldogs went the length of the field to score, and then it was Bontempelli time. He went onto the ball and together with Liberatore, he got the ball going forward from the middle. This kind of game-breaking ability is a sight for sore eyes for Saints fans who have sat by patiently over the last 3 seasons of rubbish, in the hope that a Bontempelli-esque figure would be fished out from one (or all) of the subsequent National Draft campaigns.
I’m not yet to crossover into the camp of those who foresee a decade of regretting drafting Jack Billings instead of Bontempelli, however. Of course, right now, The Bont has the runs on the board. It must also be said though that, he has had the advantage of developing in a side that is more advanced in its development. Hunter, Liberatore, Macrae, Dalhaus – these are all young stars at the Dogs who are sharing the load in driving the side forward. Also, I’d still argue that Billings’ best footy so far has shown he can be Elite in the AFL. With that in mind, getting his body right and getting some continuity into his footy, is the most pressing challenge for him right now. He came into 2016 off of a seemingly delicate preparation, and seemed to be building some good form before being struck down with an ankle injury that has kept him out of the side until last week. It must be said Saturday Night was far from his best game. Both he and Sinclair (who only chalked up 3 disposals) have yet to have gotten back to AFL speed having spent time in the VFL. Perhaps this was best highlighted when Billings, gliding into fifty in the last term, virtually dead in front pushed his shot left. This is a situation we’ve already become accustomed to a fit Billings eating for breakfast.
One smallish forward who is excelling, however, is Maverick Weller. He is suddenly looking more and more like the next captain of St Kilda Football Club. 80-something games into his relatively young career, the former Gold Coast Sun has gone from strength-to-strength is his new role as a defensive forward. Outwardly too, he presents as a guy who looks and embodies the fresh image the Club has tried to espouse since the Finnis/Richardson has been in motion.
Saturday Night’s game at the Dome is probably one that has been coming over several weeks. Against both the Bombers and (particularly) the Dees he was not only good, but made pivotal plays in crunch time. Namely, he was kicking goals when the game was on the line to go along with his much hyped physical pressure. An oft overlooked element to his game also is his skill overheard. Last night he was able to provide a quasi target up the ground, by design or not, and he took one or two particularly strong contested grabs on the wing. All this, after being involved in a heavy, head-on clash early in the first term.
One thing that clearly defines this win over the others we’ve had this season is that it’s the first in which I’ve experienced it in the context of the here and now. I’m so used to reflecting on a win and toying with what it will mean when we look back at it in future seasons. What are the takeaways to build on; what it will mean for our accumulated win total for the year; what that win total will mean for our Draft ranking and so on. I’ve been so accustomed to zooming out, taking the helicopter view that it’s almost a bit jarring to slip back into the typical AFL weekly cycle.
With this four points it has directly informed what I’m feeling towards facing the Roos next week and what effect that will have on our 2016 when it’s all over. The team seems to be embracing the now and I think I’m good to roll with that too.
RedWhiteandBlack.com.au 2016 Best Player Votes – Round 18
Jack Steven – 2
Mav Weller – 2
Tom Hickey – 2
Nick Riewoldt – 2
Dylan Roberton – 1
Sean Dempster – 1
Jack Steven – 32
Nick Riewoldt – 22
Seb Ross – 17
Tim Membrey – 15
Tom Hickey – 12
Leigh Montagna – 9
David Armitage – 8
Mav Weller – 7
Jade Gresham – 6
Jack Newnes – 6
Blake Acres – 5
Sam Fisher – 5
Jack Billings – 4
Josh Bruce – 4
Jarryn Geary – 4
Sam Gilbert – 4
Shane Savage – 4
Sean Dempster – 2
Paddy McCartin – 2
Luke Delaney – 1
Luke Dunstan – 1
Dylan Roberton – 1
Jack Sinclair – 1