For the first time in four years, Roger Federer will be contesting the French Open at Roland Garros in a few weeks’ time. Despite being the greatest tennis player of all time, Federer’s struggles on the red clay are well known, having saluted at the French Open once in 2009, after Rafael Nadal suffered his first loss earlier in the tournament, giving Federer an armchair ride to the title from there.

….This isn’t Inside Tennis? You wanted an Adelaide/St Kilda wrap? Apologies, but I digress.

If Adelaide were to have a tennis spirit animal, it certainly wouldn’t be a Spanish clay court specialist. Perhaps, instead a grass court specialist, who plies their trade in forehand winners and a big serve, with perhaps a hint of Stefan Edberg serve and volley on their day. The lack of success makes a Roger Federer comparison a bit of a stretch, bordering on insult to the Swiss superstar. Let’s say they’d be an Andy Roddick or a Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Always thereabouts at the business end of the tournament, but perhaps lacked the mental toughness to get the job done.

Adelaide’s record in “clay court” games? Not fantastic. Rarely do you see the Crows grit out wins, or outlast their opponent in lengthy, grueling rallies. Question marks aplenty on star players who can go missing when they don’t get a shoot out on their own terms ever since the 2017 Grand Final capitulation.

Today proved to be a huge exception to the rule as the Crows beat this season’s clay-court specialists, St Kilda, grinding them down before rolling over them in the last quarter, in what turned out to be an exceptionally good spectacle for the defensive pressure enthusiasts.

Potentially the best Crows win in years? Perhaps. Certainly an uncharacteristic one full of grit and determination, that could possibly be the turning point in what has been a mediocre start to season 2019.

The Saints came out firing and immediately jumped out to a 15 point lead in the first quarter on the back of what has been their trademark ferocious tackling pressure. Nearing quarter time, things looked grim for the Crows – their half back flankers caught sagging off, trying to get on the end of a cheap possession on a few occasions. Jack Steven had just bombed through an inspirational goal, only to take another mark from the resulting centre bounce and miss a second goal in under a minute from less than 15 metres out.

In theory, the turning point in the match. Steven nails that goal, the Saints perhaps run away with that. Instead, enter Eddie Betts.

I’d encourage anyone to get the replay of the last 10 minutes of the first quarter – they’re as good a defensive forward display as you’ll see in the modern game. Eddie is Everywhere. Ferocious tackling, chasing, smother attempts, he set the standard for his teammates to follow, and if you do check out that replay, watch the last minute of the quarter as he’s dry reaching next to the goal post. He’s given everything and its barely quarter time.

The Crows have matched the best defensive pressure team in the competition this year blow for blow, and went in at quarter time only a goal down, thanks largely to some errant kicking from the Saints (3.6), with Stevens’ costly miss complemented by a soda being put down by Jack Lonie too.

From here we see some structural changes from Don Pyke and co, largely in the back half. We don’t see the Crows load up on the fat side of the ground, after seeing the Saints rarely hit it up. We see Laird move into more of a traditional third man up role to support Alex Keath, rather than constantly pushing up the ground.

The Crows are as skilled a side by foot as any in the competition, dropping back against the Saints wasn’t going to hurt them as it did Melbourne the week before. It was now a question of whether the Saints’ ferocity and numbers around the ball could be sustained for another three quarters – especially now that Jack Lonie was off for the rest of the game with a knee injury.

The Saints wilted in a big way. For all their application, their attack on the footy, their team-orientated approach, the question was always going to be whether they could bring that sort of tempo week in, week out. Today was the first question mark applied to their sustained success in 2019.

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BEST ON GROUND

Alex Keath

21 disposals at 90% accuracy, 14 marks, 3 score involvements

Tom Doedee’s untimely season ending injury has given Keath a chance to really step up and show his wares as a rebounding defender, rather than just a traditional stopper role this season. And delivered in spades today, he certainly did.

Last week, Tim Membrey was easily best on ground for the Saints, tearing up an undersized Melbourne backline and marking everything in his direction. Today, barely sighted for the duration of the game. Kicking two goals, including one from a charity 50m penalty late in the game. Keath, helped himself to 14 marks (the equal third most in a game this season, equaling his own performance against the Kangaroos earlier in the year).

At times, you’d see a battle of the evolving backmen at both ends of the ground, with Nathan Brown attempting to fill the hole left by Jarryn Geary, and uncharacteristically run off his man, and attempt to run and create play. Full credit to Brown, he had his moments today, but nowhere near as effective as Keaths’ efforts at the other end of the ground. He’s come a long way from Shaun Marsh tearing him apart at the WACA all those years ago.

Rory Laird

33 touches at 81% accuracy, 5 marks, 5 score involvements, 4 inside 50s

I didn’t rate Laird’s start to the game. While St Kilda had 18 blokes throwing themselves at ball and opponent repeatedly, Laird was trying to seagull for cheap touches and offered no defensive pressure at all.

After quarter-time, Laird switched it up a bit, and played a lot more of a team oriented role, certainly helped that Keath’s dominance over Membrey allowed Laird to be as destructive playing a third man up role as he usually would running off half back and creating. The two combined really well as a defensive unit, and on a day where the ball was constantly hot, Laird was one of the few to really hurt opponents by foot. Again, another case of mirror images at the other end of the ground, with Shane Savage playing a similar role, ending up with very similar numbers. Laird won that battle comfortably.

Elliott Himmelberg

12 touches, 5 marks, 2 goals, 2 behinds, 8 hitouts, 2 tackles, 5 score involvements.

Have we really come full circle that Elliott Himmelberg’s bleached blonde do is a thing again? Whilst not quite full Marshall Mathers, nor quite Justin Timberlake Two Minute Noodles circa NSync, it would feel appropriate that he were followed around by a Smashmouth tribute band for the duration of this haircut.

Good thing he can play some pretty handy footy, and offers a lot more than Josh Jenkins, both as a relief ruckman and contributing to forward line pressure.

Taylor Walker was arguably the most dominant key forward on the ground today (those two big misses late in the third quarter aside), but Himmelberg wasn’t too far behind. His time in the ruck giving Reilly O’Brien a spell saw Adelaide able to continue their ascendency at the centre bounces, where they dominated the clearances all day. A very handy return so early on in the career.

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WORST ON GROUND

Billy Longer

10 touches, 5 marks, 24 hitouts

It was an interesting subplot in the game as Alan Richardson attempted to counter Keath’s dominance, and simultaneously hide Billy Longer out of the ruck, by planting him in the goal square on Keath instead. Not only did this result in the 190cm Blake Acres taking the centre bounces for about a quarter, but made Keath’s job at running off and creating that much easier.

Longer’s last minute inclusion for an unwell Rowan Marshall makes you wonder if Marshall is tremendously underrated for his role in the Saints’ good start to the year or if Longer is woefully off AFL standard. Just how bad were Lewis Pierce’s concussion issues if this was the alternative?

Josh Bruce

7 touches, 2 marks, 1 behind

Looked injured all day, and those suspicions were probably confirmed when the Saints looked to Acres to provide a chop out in the ruck instead of Bruce. Nonetheless, put his hand up to play, and was subsequently cleaned up by Daniel Talia. A real domino effect. If Bruce started firing, would the Crows have been able to afford Keath playing on the much smaller Membrey? If he’d gone into the ruck when the Crows had been dominating the clearances, could he have had a bigger impact than Longer or Acres did?

Jack Billings

24 disposals at 70%, 7 marks, 2 score involvements.

Probably more deserving candidates for the last spot on this list. Dean Kent was barely sighted. Jack Lonie’s one quarter was pretty poor before being injured. Callum Wilkie was outclassed by Taylor Walker at every turn. Ben Long did a couple of nice things and then went missing for three quarters.

But this was a performance from Billings that looked like he didn’t care, that he could turn on and off his prodigious talents with the flick of a switch, but instead seemed personally content with his 20 odd touches, padded the stat sheet, had very little impact on the flow of the game or the scoreboard and that was it. Where Jade Gresham and Jack Steven were still having a go right up until the final siren, and provided significant influence in bringing their lesser skilled teammates into the game, Billings had no interest in doing so. After such a great start to the season that looked to escalate Billings’ talent and standing to the next level, today was somewhere between a backward step and more of the same.

I’M NOT SURE HOW I FEEL ABOUT THESE

* The Saints now boast the ignominy of the largest injury list in the league, with Jack Lonie going down, they now have 13 players either unavailable or in doubt to face the Giants next week. With Sandringham having a bye this week, it’s going to be a struggle for Alan Richardson to freshen up his high intensity team that looked out on their legs before three quarter time. Rowan Marshall will be a must-have recall, but with Josh Bruce also looking proppy and potentially needing a week on the sidelines, do you play him forward, and recall Lewis Pierce instead?

* Do the great key forwards truly respect Taylor Walker? Walker had his best game today in probably two years (not that last week wasn’t a good return to form either), but you listen to how Dermott Brereton, Jonathon Brown and Garry Lyon talk about him during commentary stints, and there certainly isn’t the reverence or endearment in the tone of their voice that they have for a Buddy, or Jeremy Cameron (just how many times in one match can Derm tell you “he’s a beauty”?). Perhaps reading into it too much, but I get the impression they see him as a pretender to what they went out and did.

* Have teams worked out that Seb Ross has no right foot? Love the sight of him running through the middle taking the game on, but he looked a real liability at times mopping up in the back half today with his dogged insistence on getting onto his left. Not a good look for such an experienced player.

* A welcome return to form for Hugh Greenwood today. But is he wasted as a medium sized forward? Takes a handy grab for a bloke his size, but is well and truly down the pecking order in the Crows’ midfield behind the Crouch brothers, but Cam Ellis-Yolmen? And yes, whilst Myles Poholke’s SANFL numbers demanded he get a decent run in the middle, I’m sure there’ll be no shortage of teams offering him permanent midfield minutes at the end of the year. Too good a player to be wasted in that role.

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