St Kilda have threatened all year to produce an elite four quarter performance. After a few near misses, it was under the spotlight of Friday Night Football and in the face of a flag contender that the Saints finally proved their bona fides. After an arm wrestle for three quarters the young Saints blew the highly-fancied Giants off the Etihad Stadium turf with a dominant six goal to one final stanza.
The depth to the Giants list was on display for all to see on this night. For most teams losing players of the ilk of Toby Greene and Sam Reid would be a massive blow, the Giants meanwhile just bring in Phil Davis and Stephen Coniglio. If this wasn’t evidence enough, how about the fact that key men for St Kilda Jack Steele and Josh Bruce were squeezed out of the Giants squad in recent years because of the fledgling clubs’ embarrassment of riches.
Steele, apart from adding another Jack to the squad and bringing yet another man bun to Seaford, has added a hardness to the Saints midfield. In his first game against his old club he was at his ferocious best, executing five clearances, nine contested possessions and seven tackles. Bruce, who may well share the same hair dresser has Steele, didn’t have the kind of night he would have liked. He continued to present all night; this level of endeavour and effort suggest that he is not far from producing the results we have become accustomed to from him, and soon.
Coming into round 7, St Kilda’s strengths in defensive pressure and ability to score on the rebound had disguised their deficiencies in the ruck, clearances, and contested ball. Ares that GWS just so happened to be either above average or elite in. On this night though, on the back of Billy Longer getting one over Shane Mumford, St Kilda didn’t just manage to mitigate the damage, but comprehensively won the points in each measurement.
It is perhaps at this point that I should offer a public apology to St Kilda ruckman Billy Longer. I have not been a ‘Billy Believer’, considering the former Lion a backup ruckman at best. His performances over the last few weeks though have shown me the error of my ways. It is a wonderful nod to the big man’s resilience and commitment that after spending all of 2016 in the VFL, he was ready to perform the minute coach Alan Richardson called upon him. Whilst admitting my incorrect judgement on Longer, I am not yet ready to denounce Tom Hickey. Though it perhaps isn’t a coincidence that since Hickey was replaced in the senior team that the Saints numbers in clearances have leapt exponentially.
While talking about ruckmen, I will again take this opportunity to question the pot luck nature of ruck infringement free kicks. While acknowledging that I believe this inconsistency is present in most matches, there were two free kicks awarded in this match, that even after watching again at home on the replay, I found entirely perplexing. Both in the second quarter, Coventry End city side against Longer. The first earlier in the term at a boundary throw in deep in St Kilda’s attacking zone, secomd to the contest and from behind Mumford initiated a wrestle with Longer, only to lose the battle of strength. Remarkably, as the GWS big man went to ground with his arm draped over Longer’s shoulder, he was somehow awarded the free kick. The second, late in the term, saw Mumford again second to the contest, jump into Longer who had best position at a ball up, and win a free kick for an illegal shepherd.
While there is no end of grey when it comes to the laws relating to ruck contests, I find it bewildering that the player that has earned best position should surrender it, or be at the mercy of penalty. In both circumstances, Mumford has been rewarded for being second to the contest. In the first instance, he not only arrives at the contest second, but manages to win a free kick for losing a wrestling match he himself initiated. In the second, in hindsight, Longer could only have avoided censure if he had moved away from a ball the umpire effectively had landing on his head.
The abilities of the GWS midfield have long been acknowledged and celebrated, those of their St Kilda counterparts have been a lot less heralded. After their success against the Giants, they may not be overlooked for much longer. Seb Ross was again sensational at the coal face, hard at the man and the ball he collected 31 touches as he and Jack Steven continually sent their team into attack as they shared 16 clearances between them. Steven, the 3 Time Best & Fairest winner, has also been electric since returning from a punctured lung. If his name isn’t in the discussion of the League’s best midfielder’s, his ball-winning abilities, pace and x-factor means it’s a recognition that is long overdue.
Speaking of players who have been long under-rated, if Dylan Roberton can maintain his current form All-Australian selectors will have no choice but to find a position for the 25-year old backman. With elite decision making and disposal he has played a major role in the Saints rebounding from defence. His rise has no doubt been aided by the addition of twin talls Nathan Brown and Jake Carlisle, who have taken care of the opposition’s most dangerous forwards. Tasked with the job of blanketing Jeremy Cameron and Jonathon Patton, Brown and Carlisle again got the job done. I have really liked the way both have gone about their business, but have the feeling that Carlisle is just about ready to unleash his best again after a year out of the game.
After being a little disparaging of Jack Billings’ disposal last week, it would be wrong not to acknowledge his performance on Friday night. When you are taken with an early pick in the draft, expectations are high. When the player you are drafted ahead of, in three short seasons, is already universally considered one of the competitions best, these expectations can become positively unkind. So it has proven for Billings who, with pick 3, was chosen by St Kilda one selection before the Western Bulldogs chose Marcus Bontempelli.
While The Bont has established himself within the competition’s elite, Billings has struggled with injury and inconsistency. We have seen glimpses of what the young Saint can produce, most famously against the Bulldogs in the Saints massive comeback win in 2015, he has for the most part been unable to get on the park regularly. A fact best illustrated by the game tallys of the two men selected at 3 and 4. Bontempelli has played 69 games, almost an entire season’s worth more than the 49 Billings has been able to complete.
Having been able to string seven games together to start this season, the regularity of play is starting to show in his performance. After coming in and out of matches in earlier rounds, against the Giants, Billings was an everpresent force. The Saints best player in the first half, and if not for some inaccuracy in front of goal he may well have been best on ground. While St Kilda may not reap the same benefits that the Dogs have seen from Bontempelli’s level, on this night Saints fans were shown that their own investment is perhaps not far away from delivering its own strong return.
It would be wrong not to make mention of the AFL’s most unassuming Captain Jarryn Geary. Not many football fans outside of those who bleed red, black, and white, would know how important ‘Gears’ is to this team. A moment in the second half of this match illustrated it perfectly. With the play on the GWS half forward line, the ball spilled out to the man mountain that is Jonathon Patton. Without a second thought, the much smaller Geary enveloped Patton in a tackle that completely shut down what might have been a promising Giants attack.
All this would no doubt have please Alan Richardson, so would the fact that his team were able to produce this performance despite their veterans having games well below their best. Most pleasing however would be the way in which they responded after falling 17-points down midway through the 3rd Quarter. Only a fortnight after calling out their inability to go with Geelong in the last quarter when the game was on the line, his young team refused to let this golden opportunity pass them by.
When many would have considered their challenge destined for the ‘brave defeat’ category, the young Saints found another gear. Sparked by a goal from Nathan Wright that Jack Billings may never want to see again, the Saints began a withering 10 goal to 3 burst that left the Giants answerless. Steven, Jade Gresham and Blake Acres, were instrumental as the Saints ran all over the top of the Giants. After GWS started the last quarter with a pair of behinds, St Kilda dominated all the stats that matter:
The one negative, in an otherwise red letter night for the club, was the disappointing crowd figure of 21,160. The team had been threatening to produce a performance like this for some time, there is perhaps little question that a bigger turn out would have been expected against a flag fancy. Here is hoping that with home games the next two weeks, that this win will have roused the Saints Army from their slumber.
When the 2017 season is over, this win will only ever count for four points like any other win this season. Yet, in the development of this particular group of Sainters, it seemed to be worth a whole lot more. The belief garnered will be positively priceless, but as Richardson will be imploring his men already, it isn’t enough to produce this for one week. If they don’t come with the same intensity against Carlton next week, they will find themselves on the wrong side of the result.