Shadow of a doubt

By lethal

Never has the football maxim “a week is a long time in football” rung truer in my ears.

‘Tis three nights after the Saints unexpectedly, and stylishly, toppled the much-fancied Carlton, and the football media is still giddy with the heights that the side reached and has thus anointed them as contenders in 2012. The term ‘flavour of the month’, has surely been replaced by ‘flavour of the week’?

Granted, it was one of the side’s most satisfying victories in recent times, despite playing in countless significant battles over the last three or four seasons. The victory was sparked by some of the sides newest faces, and gave the fans a glimpse into the full potential of how well some of these players could play in the new setup that Scott Watters has implemented.

But that was it.

A glance at the current ladder will show you the logjam that fills up the majority of it. Two wins separate first and tenth – who are last years premiers, by the way – with the Saints in the thick of it, sitting in eighth. They return to the ledger should they succumb to a strengthened West Coast outfit on Sunday, with the Swans up next in round nine.

Monday night’s exciting performance was a glimpse; but contenders are not born on glimpses. “We are what we repeatedly do” is what Aristotle once muttered, and it still applies.

So before we all start getting Milera printed on our foreheads, calling our babies Ahmed, or getting Rhys Stanley’s haircut, let’s take a deep breath and take in the task that lay ahead for these new kids on the block.

The Saints got the better of the vaunted Blues engine room last week. Clint Jones put the clamps on Marc Murphy, whilst the combined efforts of Lenny Hayes, Jack Steven and the forgotten Farren Ray outshone even the great Chris Judd. This week though, the challenge does not get any easier in the midfield. Though a fitness cloud still sits over the Eagles premier clearance man Matt Priddis, they regain Daniel Kerr, Adam Selwood and Nic Natanui. Again, the midfield battle will be crucial. Scott Watters loves using the word “opportunity”; the strength of the West Coast midfield presents their Saints counterparts with perhaps the best chance to properly whip it’s faithful into a song and dance about their prospects this year.

So far the ruck triumvirate of Jason Blake, Justin Koschitzke and Rhys Stanley has done a good job at masquerading as a decent ruck unit. Going up against Dean Cox and Nic Natanui definitely presents the trio with its most difficult assignment to date. On the wide expanses of Patersons Stadium it will be interesting to see if Blake and Stanley in particular can be useful around the ground and curb their counterparts influence.

Despite having a well-documented lack of leg speed in recent years, the Saints have a surprisingly good record in Perth, having won three of their last four battles there against the Eagles. West Coast though, with their rise to power over 2011, have now only been beaten once in their last fifteen encounters on their home turf. It’s a daunting task for anyone; can the side’s newbies stand up at the ground dubbed the ‘House of Pain’?

It is that term, the ‘House of Pain’, which convinces me that Jimmy Gwilt should not make his long-awaited return this week. Jimmy’s precise delivery and composure in the back 50 would be a great addition to the team’s back six, but I don’t think it’s wise to include a guy returning from a knee reconstruction at a ground that has witnessed many horrendous injuries.

Fortunately, the likes of Tom Simpkin, Sean Dempster, and Sam Gilbert have held the fort down back very well, and against bigger bodies. Quentin Lynch and Jack Darling will present them with sizable challenges this week. To borrow a line from every coach league – it will be about the team defense though, and stopping the supply to said forward beasts.

And on that note, though the side has aspired to being much more free flowing in  attack, to this point they have done so without losing the ability to reduce the oppositions scoring opportunities. This will again be critical on Sunday. We have seen Lyon’s cage work just as effectively on the wide expanses of Patersons Stadium as it did at the Dome; will Scott Watters high defensive press adapt as well?

Though they are a relatively young club, West Coast is a proud one; it has been very successful in a short time. They will be smarting big time after being smacked off their perch by quasi rival Essendon. The Bombers did not hoodwink the Eagles; rather they bombarded them. In the words of The Age’s Rohan Conolly, the Dongs “chased, harassed, and tackled with the sort of relish the Eagles had been used to inflicting on others”. No doubt the Saints will have noted this pressure as being a key to clipping the Eagles wings. Essendon limited the Eagles to 41 inside 50s, limiting any chance for their weakened forward line to excel. Interestingly, one of the constants of the 2012 Saints so far has been their ability to reduce the oppositions inside 50 count. Should this continue on Sunday then they will give themselves a say in the end result.

The one thing that really lit the fire of Saints fans, and made the conquering of the Blues outstanding, was the aplomb with which the side was able to score and those who carried out these tasks. Twenty-seven scoring shots from 47 inside 50s, 11 goal scorers, 12 goals from general play. It was great to watch – I don’t know if I’ve said that genuinely for at least five years. On top of this, to glance across the BEST section and see the likes of Ray, Milera, Steven and co. present, was very refreshing; the same names are there so often.

We have become accustomed to seeing the likes of Carlton and Essendon relentlessly try to outrun and gun the Saints in recent years. The West Coast team changes hint at John Worsfold trying similar tactics. As aforementioned the Eagles seriously got slapped around in the midfield last week, and with the makeshift forwards of John Lycett and Mitch Brown being omitted for the likes of Swift, Stevens and Selwood, the Eagles are out to rectify their midfield woes. With this in mind, it would not surprise me to see Beau Wilkes make way from the Saints extended bench. The Western Australian had little impact against the Blues, so the coaching staff may be tempted to entrust most of the goal scoring tasks to the small forwards given their hot form. That said, on a long ground like Patersons Stadium, losing structure is a common pitfall. My final prediction is for Cripps to be included at Arryn Siposs’ expense. Cripps may not have found himself as an AFL player yet, but he does have speed and has been performing well at VFL level. I’m a big Siposs fan, but his transition into pushing up the ground is still in need of development; currently he does not win enough ball over four quarters to justify his spot.

Priddis versus Hayes, Simpkin on Darling, Dean Cox against Rhys Stanley, Butler on Milne – there are myriad match ups that make this contest a tantalising one.

Last week’s upset win over Carlton confirmed that this group still packs enough of a punch to land some big blows against some of the competitions fiercest competitors. Can they do so on a weekly basis? The words Ross the ex-Boss still echo – the season is a marathon.

So far this year we’ve had one eye fixed on the horizon, but the Blues win brought us back into the present and made us believe that perhaps the future is here in front of us.