We’re not in Kansas anymore

By lethal

Round 13, 2020
Melbourne 4.0, 5.1, 7.3, 8.4 (52)
St Kilda 1.3, 4.5, 6.6, 7.7 (49)
Crowd: ??? at TIO Traegar Park, Saturday, August 29th at 7.40pm

A really, really, really, really disappointing loss. Our fourth loss for the year by six points or less, but the reverberations of this one feel more pronounced.

Our razor-sharp attacking efficiency seems to have almost deserted us by this point. Jack Billings has gone into a listless funk, that hits him at one point or another during the year. The set shot yips are bobbing their head up. Local law-enforcement are still trying to trace Nicholas Hind; he may technically be a Missing Person by sundown. Captain Jarryn Geary’s on-field output is anyone’s guess.

Yeah the cracks are starting to appear.

Nah, nah. Scratch that. The cracks that have been slowly, splintering into our setup over the last 4-5 games are now actually biting us on the butt. There’s only so many Butler get-out-of-jail cards you can play over a pandemic season.

In the Brisbane Lions, and now the Melbourne Football Club, we’ve been staring down some quality opposition who also have finals places on the line. Steven May has had a ripper of a year, and unfortunately he handed Max King another valuable lesson. But us Saints fans have tossed away the development lens of watching the game way back in the dust several weeks ago. Finals has been front of mind for at least a month now, and so the developmental learnings of key planks like King, Bytel, Clark and Coffield have been shelved in the harsh light of wins and losses.

Given the stakes, for two sides that are desperate to represent in October (?), it’s not a great surprise that this contest became a slog. Labelling it as an arm wrestle seems kind of generous too. Nevertheless, the Dees’ had the two most influential dudes on the field. Petracca had four majors – there were only 15 for the night, mind – and Steven May took nine marks whilst marshalling the Dees defence. They were the two players that were a thorn in the Saints side all night, particularly May who seemed to feast on the Saints careless delivery into the forward line.

May’s 9 marks (mostly uncontested, I dare say) is on the back of Harris Andrews’ commanding performance against us last week, and Tom Stewart and Harry Taylor (and the rest of the gang) a couple of weeks prior to that. The connection between the midfield and the forwards just hasn’t been the same of late. And as convenient as it sounds, I think it’s both a mixture of putrid ball use and the forwards just been outmanoeuvred too often. Seb Ross’ lofted, sand-wedge kind of chip forward over the head of Max late in the last term, was met with visible derision by young Max. That was just one snapshot of how we managed to fritter away so many forward thrusts.

It’s that kind of kicking that had Saints kicking their television sets in across the nation. And as much as Brad Hill was one of our best, and he has been much more impactful over the last two weeks, would you rather 27 Hill touches at half-back or two-thirds as many in the front half? Hill was one of the players who was finishing the game full of run, trying to pry open a disciplined Demons defensive grid. It was a bright spot in what was a dour night. One could say though that Hill’s shift to the back half is reflective of St Kilda’s form seriously plateauing over the last 4 games or so.

On Saturday night we still managed to take 7 marks inside 50 – our season average is 9.3. Over the last five games (including Saturday night) we’ve accrued: 8, 7, 8, 8, and 7. So it’s not as if our inability to find targets is the one key to our form. The more worrying aspect to it in more recent times is the amount of times our forwards opponents are marking it. That has a major impact on two fronts: firstly, it limits the crumbing opportunities from which the likes of Hind, Kent and Butler salivate over. Secondly, it means we cannot create stoppages in the forward 50.

That second aspect is particularly telling because when we create those stoppages we bring into the game our ruck advantage – when you have a lineup with two ruckmen plus a giant in Max King, those forward 50 stoppages are often worth their weight in gold (see Battle’s snap goal on Saturday night from a Max King tap). And the other part to that is, those stoppages give you the opportune time to setup your defence behind the ball so you can keep the opposition under your thumb.

When your service to your forward line is lacking and wayward, Hill and Billings would be the two prime candidates that I’d look to to get the ball in the hands more often for our inside 50s. And yet, both of them have had their own woes.

Billings had a white-hot start to the year. On SuperCoach terms he was irrepressible, chalking up over 112 points in 4 of the first 5 rounds of the year. (His 24 disposals, 3 goal, 5 tackle, 4 inside 50 outing versus the Dogs on reflection could be the best Billings game we’ve ever seen). Bar a 124 outing against the Bombers 3 games ago, he’s clocked up zero since. His late cameo against the Lions was brave and a sharp reminder of his versatility, but he’s still coming up short in the area where we need him most. Even the most one-eyed Saint would agree that our midfield still is short of clubs in the bag. Between the arcs is where we need Billings more of his hands on the ball. I don’t think I saw him leave the forward 60 meters on Saturday night.

Hill’s 27 touches on Saturday night were a high for the game as a whole. His appetite to fly by for handball-receives as well as the smarts of his teammates to use him when appropriate seems to be becoming more natural and evident the last two weeks. Again though, it’s his kicking into the 50 where he’d be worth his weight in gold. In the twilight evening glowing across a rejuvenated Moorabbin Oval (RSEA Park) in February, we saw Hill for what was most fans’ first chance to see him play for the Saints. His effortless incisiveness heading into the 50 metre arc hasn’t dazzled as brightly since that night.

If you want to go full deductive, the Saints just don’t have enough of their best players in form. Aside from Steele, our classier cattle just haven’t been firing enough. Battle has struck form over the last 3 weeks or so, despite being shuffled across the ground from quarter-to-quarter and Coffield has been the Quarterback we never really had. But those three just don’t have enough players helping them carry the load. Gresham’s absence is being felt, if for nothing else but to be a spark plug. Zak Jones has been toiling away, but his kicking still lets him down too often for an experienced campaigner. Seb Ross’ great game against the Lions (as a tagger) remains just that – he hasn’t done much this year. In arm-wrestle-like contests like Saturday Night’s, you really need a weight of numbers effort to try and break the will of the opposition and we should be looking to our seasoned players to drive that push.

Most of the media attention has already started to swing onto poor Max King. He’s an easy target, and not just because of his extreme height. I think it would be much more appropriate for them to swing some of the spotlight onto the likes of Ross, Membrey, Billings, Jones, all of whom are in the prime of their careers and are coming up short at the moment. Sinclair had his moments on the weekend, but is he doing enough now that he’s a full-time midfielder now?

Having said that, King’s form is hard to ignore. I fully sympathise with him given the amount of times so-called passes were placed to his disadvantage, but on Saturday night he had a clear run at a couple that you thought he’d gobble with his eyes close. There was one at the top of the goal square, I’m pretty sure in the third term that he just failed to bring down. Surely some of it is down to his body trying to cope with his first AFL season, as well as having to battle through a period of playing against a string of some of the league’s best tall defenders. I would’ve advocated that we give him a game off to recuperate and recharge, but given Hawthorn’s recent struggles it might be best for him to lace-up and hopefully mark his way into form against a more vulnerable back six.

The backline, again, I don’t think was a big concern. Carlisle’s omission didn’t seem to have an impact, as Weideman had a quiet night – his only notable moment being a goal which he crumbed off the deck in the third term. Petracca was a constant threat, but that’s a match up that’s out of Jake’s wheelhouse in terms of athleticism. After quarter time the Dees kicked four goals: That should be a scoreline that’s more than easy enough to overcome.

Given the injury situation for the Saints, I get the feeling that by and large we’ll be riding out the year essentially with the 22 we saw versus the Dees. The health status of both Hannebery and Dunstan is worth keeping a very close eye on, as any fresh legs we can inject into the midfield could be vital in such a demanding schedule. Perhaps Lonie gets one last chance? Depending on the opposition, Carlisle may see action again. But there’s very little in the areas that we need help that can be injected from the fringes of the current 22.

And maybe that’s beside the point. This 22 has shown several times this year that it has good footy (against quality opposition too) in it, and sometimes it’s just about being better for longer. A bit more efficiency from Max King against the Lions, and some better set shot kicking versus the Dees, and we could be sitting here looking at a 3 game winning streak and a finals birth locked-in. Winning form isn’t that far away, but it’s now a race against the clock to unlock those elements of our team performance that are missing.