A final quarter flourish from the Saints was enough for them to overcome West Coast in a riveting Sunday afternoon contest at Etihad Stadium. The match appeared destined to be another tale of missed opportunities for the Saints when they trailed by 14 points in the last quarter despite dominating possession, inside 50 and clearances for the match. Instead, a week after surrendering a winning position against Port Adelaide, the Saints found a way to get their noses in front and keep their finals hopes alive.
In a season that has been as close as any in living memory, the Saints entered Round 20 in 11th place yet only a game behind the sixth placed Swans. It meant the clash with the Eagles would be of vital importance to St Kilda’s finals hopes. Statistician Matt Cowgill in his Footy Forensics column on ESPN had declared it the most important game of the weekend. Victory for the Saints improved their chances of September action to 20% when defeat would have left them all but extinguished at 2%. For the Eagles, victory could have lifted their chances of a Top 8 berth to 74%, instead now have chances little better than the St Kilda’s.
In the games opening minute, we were given a snapshot of what was to unfold in the 120 minutes that would follow. Billy Longer won the opening hit-out over Drew Petrie giving his team first use of the ball, the Eagles swooped on a St Kilda error and scored a goal to open the scoring. Longer dominated Petrie throughout the day amassing 51 hit-outs and helping his team build a large clearance advantage. He also had a busy day around the ground, laying 6 tackles and gathering 13 possessions including a bustling centre clearance off his own ruck work to start the final quarter. The Eagles early goal was also a portent, a Saints turnover proving costly, and St Kilda needing to play catch up the entire match due to West Coast opening the scoring in the opening two minutes of each quarter of the match.
The Saints responded quickly and strongly to West Coast’s fast start, and not surprisingly it was Seb Ross and Tim Membrey at the centre of it. Ross has been one of the Saints best performers in season 2017 and it was a penetrating pass from the left footer who set up Membrey for the first goal of the day. Membrey, fresh off a strong performance in trying conditions last week, was a giant presence for the Saints against the Eagles. He took 8 marks for the day and roamed far and wide to provide a target. His two goals from two strong marks inside forward 50 only told half the story though. His defensive efforts were also telling with the big forward laying four tackles for the day, to be a vital part of the Saints dominance in forward half pressure. The Saints tackling pressure was immense across the field, winning the overall tackle count 83-51, but their desire to win was perhaps best highlighted by the differential Inside Forward 50. St Kilda’s maniacal efforts to set up camp in their attacking zone borne out in their laying 31 tackles in this area as opposed to the Eagles who could only manage 4.
It wasn’t a flawless formula however, with the Eagles able to exploit the Saints forward press a number of times when moving the ball quickly into attack from kick in’s or upon St Kilda turn-overs. Mark LeCras was the beneficiary of this sling-shot approach twice as the Eagles were able to get goal side of the Saints defence. His second goal the most damning as he was one of three Eagles who found themselves ahead of St Kilda’s defenders who were effectively able to raffle the opportunity to kick the goal. Nowhere was West Coast’s ability to transition more telling than from their kick-ins from St Kilda behinds. The Eagles managed to score 3.1 from this avenue, punishing St Kilda’s waywardness in front of goal with forward 50 entries from half of St Kilda’s behinds. When Josh Kennedy goaled from one such instance in the third quarter, it seemed likely to be a key turning point in the match. Moments earlier, Nick Riewoldt looked to extend St Kilda’s lead only to see Jade Gresham turn unlikely goal-keeper on the goal line. Like lighting, the Eagles transitioned the ball forward and instead, regained the lead through their Coleman Medallist Kennedy.
St Kilda’s dominance in the effort categories, Tackles and Contested Possessions, was in no small part to the efforts of Jack Steele. The former Giant has played 17 games in this, his first season in red, black, and white, but perhaps none better than this one against West Coast. Incredibly hard at the contest, Steele won 20 contested possessions and laid 12 tackles. Not content to only hurt the Eagles at the contest, Steele impacted the scoreboard too with two important majors. Deep in time on in the first quarter, amongst a nest of Eagles he somehow managed to drag in a strong pack mark, before kicking truly after the siren to keep the Saints in touch at the first break. Then in the last quarter near St Kilda’s goal square, with the most important of his 10 clearances for the day, off half a step the 21-year-old was able to turn, kick and squeeze through a goal to retake the lead for the Saints.
With 20 possessions, 10 contested, and three goal assists, Jack Sinclair was another Saint who had a telling impact on the contest. In a pair of important moments, Sinclair was instrumental in keeping the Saints in the contest after the Eagles had opened up a 22-point advantage in the second quarter. With St Kilda desperate to stem the tide, he pounced upon a pinball opportunity to kick a goal and begin the fight back. Moments later he was again at the forefront, at pace he brilliantly sharkeda marking contest between Mav Weller and Elliot Yeo, before finding Nick Riewoldt with a pinpoint accurate pass. In the blink of an eye, the young Saint had breathed renewed life into St Kilda’s season.
Farewell St. Nick
In his first game after announcing his intention to retire, Riewoldt converted upon the silver service delivered by Sinclair. It was to be a rare bright spot in a quiet afternoon for the St Kilda legend, hindered perhaps in part by a heavy knock that saw his face become well acquainted with the Etihad Stadium surface. Yet, in this moment in the second quarter, and again at a key stage in the last, he was able to inspire his team with his efforts. With the Saints having just retaken the lead in the last quarter a wobbly ball bounced awkwardly between Riewoldt and West Coast’s Dom Sheed. As we have come to expect from Riewoldt he bravely hit the contest to prevent Sheed from gathering possession. A clash of heads saw the champion exit the contest worse for wear and required him to leave the field under the blood rule, no doubt having inspired his team mates with his selfless act.
The umpires, correctly, chose not to pay a free kick in this instance and that seemed to be the direction of the day as they seemed intent to err on the side of not awarding a free kick wherever possible. This was evident in the apparent 180-degree change in interpretation on the deliberate out of bounds rule. Twice in the first half, the Eagles were guilty of offences that would have been punished by a free kick in the opening rounds of the season. In the first quarter, Brad Sheppard won the ball ahead of Membrey then made a beeline for the boundary with the ball in hand before Dom Sheed punted the ball towards the line later in the quarter. Apart from an incorrect call in a marking contest between Jack Darling and Brandon White, the men in green seemed at pains not to be responsible for any goals scored. This led to a situation in the second quarter where Shannon Hurn collected the ball deep in defence, broke a tackle then was brought to ground without disposing of the ball without penalty. The West Coast skipper was again the beneficiary of the umpires’ leniency after again trying to break tackles and not disposing of the ball in the final term These efforts were taken to a new extreme when the whistles were put away completely in the final 15 minutes of the match, with the umpires unable to find a single transgression in this period.
While the umpires did all within their power to remain inconspicuous in the last quarter, the same could not be said about Dylan Robertson or Jack’s Steven and Billings who all played vital roles in the Saints last quarter surge. It was a free flowing start to the final term with both sides moving the ball freely and scoring almost every time they went inside forward fifty early. Things looked grim for the Saints though, when the Eagles went coast to coast after a Jade Gresham behind for LeCras third of the match and extending their advantage to 14 points.
Rather than wilt, St Kilda responded with renewed vigour, winning the contested possession count in the quarter by 31, and quickly had the margin back to two points after goals, with Jack Sinclair’s fingerprints all over them, to Shane Savage and Jack Billings. Sinclair handing off the opportunity to a flying Savage inside fifty and finding Billings at the top of the square with a precise left foot pass.
After having been cut to ribbons by the Eagles counter attack in the first three-quarters, the Saints were much better prepared for it in the last term. Brandon White, in his third game, a beneficiary of the better set up taking a number of telling intercept marks. Dylan Roberton was also a key player in these efforts, directing and marshalling the Saints defence while also winning a number of key contests late on the last line of defence late in the match.
Jack Steven was massive in the last quarter after Mark Hutchings and a corked hip kept him quiet for the first three-quarters. With the game on the line, Steven had an electrifying term, the three-time Trevor Barker Medallist doubled his possession count with 11 last quarter touches, including a threaded pass to Josh Bruce that should have iced the game had the big forward kicked truly. While Bruce’s miss left the door ajar for West Coast to possibly pinch the game, it also allowed another Saint the opportunity to be the hero. Enter Jack Billings.
With his side leading by two points, and with a minute on the clock, Jack Billings was confronted with a tight angle to overcome if he was to secure victory for his team. After another outstanding performance, it was befitting that Billings was afforded the opportunity to be the hero. Having been selected ahead of Marcus Bontempelli in the 2013 Draft, comparisons have been unkind on the 21-year-old. His form in 2017 has gone a long way to silencing the doubters, but having kicked 17.26 this year it doesn’t take much imagination to understand the pressure he was under as he took his shot. Having the presence of mind to milk the clock as long as possible his shot was never in doubt as it sailed over the goal umpires head. After 25 disposals, three marks inside 50, five goal assists and two goals, it was an exclamation mark on another classy performance.
It was a positive response from the team after the heartbreak of the week before and as a result, their slim finals hopes remain alive. It is a simple equation for the Saints for the next three weeks, win and stay alive, lose and say goodnight. Anything less than what they produced in the last quarter against the Eagles will bring an end to their September dreams.
ST KILDA 3.2 7.5 10.7 15.13 (103)
WEST COAST 3.5 7.8 10.10 14.11 (95)
St Kilda: Membrey 2, Bruce 2, Steele 2, Billings 2, Sinclair, Riewoldt, Acres, Newnes, Ross, Dunstan, Savage
West Coast: Kennedy 5, LeCras 3, Darling 2, McGovern, Karpany, Sheed, Cripps
St Kilda: Steele, Acres, Billings, Newnes, Roberton, Sinclair, Stevens
West Coast: Kennedy, Sheed, Gaff, Yeo, Mitchell, Hurn, Redden
St Kilda: Steven (hip), Newnes (eye), Riewoldt (concussion)
West Coast: Hurn (cut head)
Reports: Luke Dunstan (St Kilda) for tripping Jack Redden (West Coast) in the second quarter
Umpires: McInerney, Mitchell, Mollison
Official crowd: 22,688 at Etihad Stadium