It was a glorious autumnal afternoon that greeted Saints fans as they filed into Etihad Stadium for the team’s Round 9 encounter with the Sydney Swans. The 2016 Minor Premiers had endured a slow start to the new season but entered the match on the back of a two-game winning streak and offered the Saints another opportunity to test themselves against an in-form opponent. Three hours later the confidence once felt by the small but vocal crowd had evaporated in the wake of a four-quarter reality check delivered by the resurgent Swans.
“We like the tackles, but if they’re going to kick it under pressure, we like that, particularly a team that transfers the ball so well. We had pressure and speed in our forward half which is important for us.” This was a telling comment by John Longmire in the post-match, because although the Swans laid only 51 tackles to the Saints 76, the pressure they applied was considerably greater. St Kilda’s ball carriers were constantly hurried or corralled by the frantic Swans who worked simultaneously to cover the options ahead of the ball too. The Saints wilted under the weight of this pressure, by games end the harassment had seen them surrender 54 points through turnovers in their back half alone. Dylan Roberton and his cohorts who had been so successful in turning defence into attack prior to this game were rendered almost impotent by Sydney. Having entered the game as one of the competition’s leading teams for scoring from the back half, on this day they struggled to exit the danger zone, 9 times conceding intercept marks inside the defensive arc.
Seb Ross, Jack Billings, and Roberton were the key ball winners for the Saints, each gathering the Sherrin more than 30 times. Ross was tireless for St Kilda, effecting 8 clearances, 8 tackles and 5 inside 50’s, to be the best for the beaten Saints. The story of the match evident in the fact that each had disposal efficiencies lower than the AFL average. Simply being ineffective is one thing, the opposition needs to be able to take advantage of it, which the Swans were doing repeatedly. This was encapsulated in a play early in the 3rd quarter as Jack Billings looked to clear the ball from defensive 50, spotting Leigh Montagna he attempted to drive the ball to the veteran Saint who was in a one on one contest with Dean Towers. While Billings did not hit the ball well, his pass was still to Montagna’s advantage or was, until he slipped near the corner of the centre square. Towers pounced on the now uncontested ball and made the Saints pay with a true kick for goal. Or Gary Rohan slipping in to intercept a pass from Jack Steven almost where the 50m arc meets the boundary. A difficult kick for anybody, yet Rohan went back and kicked the goal post ¾ high up as if 20 metres out directly in front.
At the start of the season, there was debate as to whether ‘Dangerwood’ or ‘Pendleroar’ were the best midfield duo in the AFL. Against the Saints, Josh Kennedy and Dan Hannebery showed everyone what Swans fans already know, the debate had missed another duo worthy of Portmanteau[i] status. The Swans dynamic pair, or Kennebery, as I will now refer to them were simply sensational against the Saints. St Kilda had no answer to either man and Kennebery combined for 65 disposals, 10 clearances, 9 inside 50’s, 13 tackles, and 3 goals, in a devastating display that played a key role in the Swans comprehensive victory.
There was also some pre-season questioning of the Saints decision to recruit 2010 Collingwood premiership defender Nathan Brown. Nick Riewoldt’s nemesis in both Grand Finals that year had been hampered by injuries in the intervening years and many wondered whether he could have an impact for the Saints in 2017. St Kilda’s recruiters were again validated with his performance on Swans Superstar Buddy Franklin. Brown blanketed Buddy in the first half of the match keeping the 3x Coleman Medallist goalless. A particular highlight was when, after outmuscling Franklin, he brought the ball to ground with a spoil, gathered it after keeping his feet, fired out a handpass to a team-mate before effecting a heavy shepherd to give the player space to run the ball out of defence. Unfortunately for Brown, football can be a cruel game sometimes and in junk time Franklin was able to get off Brown’s short leash and finish with four goals. The stats would suggest the Swans big man got the points in this individual tussle, and it would be hard to argue at the same time it would be a harsh judgement on Brown’s efforts on this day.
While we are handing out plaudits, it is worth making a special note of Sam Gilbert’s performance in a losing cause. St Kilda’s less celebrated blonde-haired Queenslander was tireless from siren to siren winning 14 contested possessions along the way. His afternoon perhaps best summed up by an effort on the City Side win in the last quarter. Despite the match being long lost, Gilbert – outnumbered one to four, effected a spoil then made a tackle to dislodge the ball from a Swan flying forward. Then after being joined at the fall of the ball by teammates, he completed efforts four and five to win the ball out for his team with a handball to Blake Acres.
Speaking of Acres, it is fair to say that he is perhaps not the favourite player of the man sitting in front of me amongst the 29,778 fans comfortably housed within Etihad Stadium on this day. The 21-year-old utility could do little to please this fan with each of his four clangers prompting stinging tirades from him. His 9 touch 3rd quarter was not enough to draw praise, nor his 7 inside 50’s or his long-range goal. While I disagree wholeheartedly with this fan, I do have to give him credit for actually attending the game. Perfect conditions, two in-form teams and football’s most traditional time slot were not enough to draw many other St Kilda supporters to the ground. Only a fortnight after a meagre 21,000 turned out for the team’s Friday Night clash with the Giants this was a disappointing show of support from the St Kilda faithful. With the team emerging again as a finals contender and with the club boasting an-time record membership tally, hopefully the next home game in five weeks’ time can attract a few more fans through the turnstiles.
Having dropped out of the 8 after coming up short against the 2016 Minor Premiers, it doesn’t get any easier in the next two rounds. Next weekend the Saints have the opportunity of measuring themselves against the might of the 2016 Premiers before having to meet the ladder leading Crows at Adelaide Oval the following round. It will be a searing examination, will they stand tall, or wilt under the spotlight’s glare?
ST KILDA 3.2 5.4 7.5 10.8 ( 68)
SYDNEY 4.2 7.3 12.8 18.10 (118)
St Kilda: Riewoldt 3, Gresham 2, Membrey 2, Acres, McCartin, Roberton
Sydney: Franklin 4, Hannebery 2, Papley 2, Cunningham 2, Towers, Reid, Kennedy, Tippett, Hayward, Newman, Hewett, Rohan
St Kilda: Steven, Ross, Acres, Gilbert, Billings
Sydney: Kennedy, Hannebery, Mills, Parker, Grundy, Lloyd
St Kilda: Newnes (concussion), Weller (right ankle)
Sydney: Cunningham (right foot)
Umpires: Stevic, Mitchell, Mollison
Official crowd: 29,778 at Etihad Stadium
[i] A portmanteau is a linguistic blend of words in which parts of multiple words are combined into a new word, as in smog – the blending of smoke and fog, or more annoyingly in Hiddleswift – the blending of the surnames of Tom Hiddleston and Taylor Swift.