A dedication

By Tom Briglia

Round 17, 2011
St Kilda 6.1,  8.4,  8.4,  13.4 (82)
West Coast Eagles 0.1,  4.2,  8.6,  9.7 (61)
Crowd: 31,416 at Etihad Stadium, Saturday, July 16th, 7.10pm

Thrown-in versus West Coast

Nearly four years ago, the Saints were in form after a slow start to the season and faced the surging Eagles at Docklands to keep their slim finals hopes alive.

Three finals campaigns over the previous three seasons had failed to yield a premiership which, in a rare state of affairs, was an expectation of the star-laden side from Moorabbin. The 2007 charge had many expecting the Saints to be capable of damaging things in September, should they sneak into the eight.

A first quarter of fast and furious football, with brilliant pressure in the forward half particularly, had Saints fans giving their side a standing ovation at the first change, with the home team up 5.5 (35) to the shellshocked Eagles’ 1.1 (7).

History would show the Eagles’ dangerous midfield of Cousins, Priddis and Cox – Judd was restricted with injury and Kerr was missing – settle and take control in the second half and overwhelm the Saints, who had lost promising tagger Jayden Attard to a season-ending knee injury.

Kosi’s third goal with just over 20 seconds remaining would bring St Kilda within two points, but the resulting ball to be won saw the Eagles go harder when it counted and seal the game with a quick major of their own.

From then on, the Saints would have to rely on Collingwood to defeat Adelaide the following Friday night, and beat the lowly Tigers themselves the day after to finish in the top eight. The Crows would get up, however, and St Kilda’s tight win was irrelevant.

Fast forward to three-quarter time last night, and a near-repeat of what transpired late in 2007 was well and truly in motion. For a team who is perennially taunted and teased by history, this looked sure to be added to the growing story of St Kilda’s heartbreak.

The Saints went into quarter-time with a 37-1 lead, led by Joey Montagna with an incredible 17 touches. Though he seemed to be roaming around on his own, he found the ball at will and his possessions were quality, with his pass setting up Milne for the first goal of the game (insert betting-related joke here) establishing the tone.

It was the relentless forward pressure that had the competition’s form side on the ropes so early. With the passing of Allan Jeans during the week, every player started looking to do justice to his legacy; Steven and Clarke punctuating the good work of Joey, McEvoy, Jones, Goddard, Dal, et al. with exciting finishes.

Late inclusion Kosi chimed in with two goals of his own, and when Vegas mopped up Roo’s second set-shot mess it was confirmed that the Saints could do no wrong, unless Roo was going to be having another set shot any time soon.

Vegas kicked his second soon after the break, and it seemed the flow of the game was unchanged. Milne nearly made it eight for the Saints but the ball slipped through his hands with nothing but several metres of empty space between him and the goals.

From then on, the Eagles slowed the Saints down and began to execute their forward press with much more authority. The influence of Priddis, Shuey, Nic Nat and Cox began to grow, their pressure had lifted as they went more tightly man-on-man and by half-time had kicked four of the next five goals.

BJ was getting frustrated, and it filtered through the rest of the side as the Saints had a hell of a time getting it out of the Eagles’ attack. When they did, the run and use of the corridor was stuttered and they began the old, silly habit of bombing it into the forward line.

It’s been this side’s undoing so many times recently, in much bigger games. West Coast knew exactly what was going to happen and were able to get numbers back, clean up any spills and send it back forward. The shared load the Saints carried going forward in the opening blitz morphed into lame predictability.

The third quarter saw the trend continue, and the Saints’ members were well and truly quelled. Youngster Andrew Gaff was superbly impressive through the game, and gave the Saints some more to think about. He finished with 21 touches and two goals, and his deft snap to set up another Eagles goal in the third term made the Saints look terribly lost.

Despite Dempster’s shutting down of a rejuvenated Andrew Embley, West Coast were all over the Saints. They had Eric MacKenzie blanketing Roo, and Nic Nat began making the hype real. He made contested marks look easy, cut through the midfield and took on Saints midfielders in an exciting run and dominated the ruck contests.

West Coast swallowed every meek foray the Saints made out defence, kicking long, high and wide for Nic Nat, Cox or Lynch to shut down any potential attack. If the ball spilled, the Eagles had numbers at the fall each time. They were working harder and looked like the team that Ross the Boss had described as a “locomotive” during the week.

Sadly, Jimmy Gwilt had his season ended by a rather innocuous shepherd in this term. Well and truly established as a member of the 22 over the past 18 months, his loss is the second of a senior St Kilda player this year after Lenny. Like Jack Steven was able to blossom in the latter’s absence, albeit with much more available time, the door may have opened now for Tom Simpkin or Tommy Walsh, both of whom Ross mentioned post-match. Blake and Baker are the more experienced options should the Saints not want to take chances as they vie for top-eight position.

The Eagles went into the final change in front, and it seemed the Saints’ hard work to create a 43-point lead would be frittered away, much as it had four years earlier.

St Kilda has experienced unthinkable situations on and off the field since that night in 2007. Ross has also been able to get his charges to switch between modes of play effectively, and they were able to respond to the gauntlet thrown down by the high-flying Eagles.

It started with Zac’s deadly delivery to a leading Milne early in the last. The Saints were already setting up as the had in the first term, allowing themselves to create and use space in the forward line. Milne went back and kicked the goal – his third – and the Saints were back in front.

Of course, the Eagles were too good to have it end there, and it was Nic Nat who freakishly roved his own ruck contest and snapped a goal on the run from a tight angle to put West Coast back in front.

For all his and Cox’s dominance in the ruck, however, the St Kilda midfield lifted in the last quarter and were pivotal in the Saints’ charge towards victory. Dal and Jones allowed the Saints to get the ball into the forward half and keep it in there, as Dempster and Polo locked down their opponents.

The Saints continued to play more direct football and getting to numbers to the ball. The game had changed again.

It was Dempster who rewarded the pressure further up the ground with a great snap from 45 metres out to give the Saints back the lead. Tellingly, he kicked the goal with the forward line full of space after the Saints had hounded the ball back from their opponents.

With just under five minutes to go, Joey was the fitting recipient of an errant MacKenzie kick deep in the pocket; like Dempster, he was able to cap off his own great game with an important goal when the match was there to be won.

A massively important centre clearance was won by the Saints, and the West Coast defenders were under pressure yet again. Joey broke through traffic and the ball found Brett Peake, who sidestepped his way to the sealing goal. Just like that.

Joey finished with with 34 disposals and a brilliant goal, Milne with three goals and plenty of help elsewhere, including setting up Armitage for the last goal of the match after another EMac howler. Goddard and Dal Santo were back to their damaging best, with plenty of help from Jones, Peake, Raph, Dempster, and a great last quarter from Gilbert off half-back.

Ross said after the game he’d played footage of Jeans to the Saints players pre-game – “not to be motivational but we’ve got some young players, so it was a reminder of his contribution to the club” – and described him as “the greatest leader in St Kilda’s history”. It was a fitting tribute from the players and coach alike.

This was the kind of fighting, weight-of-numbers performance that has punctuated St Kilda’s style over the past two years, and they’ll need to keep things moving as the race for the eight heats up. The Saints will go in favourites against the Crows and Suns over the next two weeks, but there is little room for error and more scoreless quarters.

Jeans is famously quoted as saying there are three states of play: “We have the ball, they have the ball, or the ball is in dispute.” As far as St Kilda’s 2011 season is concerned, the Saints have the ball. From now, it’s up to them to use it to their advantage.