As the Kangaroos and Saints battled out the final minutes of the first, and possibly last game of their 2020 season, the AFL honchos were meeting to pull the pin on the season.
Bodies flew in, players threw themselves at the boots of the opposition, and the win was sought with a reckless abandon in the final moments.
It will be such a shame if it is all for nothing.
The Saints looked the better team in the first half, applying the sort of forward pressure that would have made Brett Ratten smile, but after the break, it was North Melbourne who snatched away the blowtorch, and turned it onto St Kilda, with the latter going into their shell a little too much in response.
It gave North the opening they needed, and they stormed on home to take the four points.
In light of today’s events, I hope you enjoy The Mongrel’s good, bad and ugly.
WHAT DID CUNNERS TAKE AT HALF TIME?
Some people just take a while to work into a season.
And others take a half of footy to get up and going.
Ben Cunnington was huge in the second half for the Kangaroos. After a pretty ordinary eight-disposal first half, Cunners re-entered the fray and attacked the contest with venom in the second half. His 17 second half touches and two goals as the deepest forward option were vital in the North comeback bid.
As those around him continued to double grab at the footy, Cunnington’s sure hands, and ability to extract the footy became pivotal in the contest. So pivotal, in fact, that he became the best player on the ground yet again, as he and Jed Anderson dragged their team back into the game.
Cunners is a monster – a contested footy beast that is just as worthy of praise as any of the big midfielders in the game. Fyfe, Cripps, Oliver… none of them have anything on Cunnington when the ball is there to be won. His hands are a like a vice, and look, I’ll open up a bit here as it might be the last GBU I do for a while – I’m not really scared of any footballers; they’re just blokes, right? But there is something about Ben Cunnington that would make me think twice about testing him. He just looks like a bloke that knows how to handle himself.
And no, not in the way Joe Ganino handles himself. That’s messy, and unhygienic in these dark times.
Cunnington finished with 16 contested touches, six clearances and seven tackles in a complete game in the middle. An easy choice for the best player on the ground, for mine.
THE LONE BIG GUN
When people talk about the best ruckmen in the competition, one name that is constantly left out of the equation, particularly if you’re ranking the top three, is Todd Goldstein, and more often than not, that is a complete mistake.
What Todd Goldstein brings to the table belies his appearance. He looks like the kind of guy you’d get to do your taxes, and he’d be pushing buttons on the calculator, getting frustrated, pushing his comb-over hair-do out of his eyes and then declaring that he was able to get you a return by claiming laundry on a uniform you don’t ever really wear.
But looks can be deceiving, and Todd Goldstein is an absolute warrior, and has been for years.
Today, he was confronted with the daunting prospect of not just battling the best young ruck in the game, but also having to combat the relief ruck work of Paddy Ryder. In effect, he would be battling two fresh big guys all day, either of whom are capable of holding their own against anyone in the game.
Not only did Goldy win a few battles, he won the war as well.
The Kangaroos big man re-signed with the team this off-season, recommitting to the team despite interest from elsewhere, and he emphasised his importance to the team with 14 disposals, 27 hit outs and a goal as he rose to the occasion late in the game to provide first use to his midfielders.
Goldstein drifted back into defence as was pivotal in breaking up the long inside 50 deliveries from the Saints late in the game (and even wore one from his teammate, Jasper Pittard that looked to completely rock him in the process).
Whilst many love the Grundy and Gawn discussion, over the past ten years, has there been a better, more consistent ruck in the league than Goldstein? I’d say no.
THE NEW ROLE FOR BEN
What would I have focused on had St Kilda got up?
Dougal Howard’s restriction of Ben Brown? Brad Hill’s scintillating kicking inside 50? How about Ben Long floating across half back in the role it looks like he was born to play?
Yep, that’ll do.
Despite suffering what looked to be a very nasty ankle injury in the second quarter, Ben Long returned to the action, and picked up right where he left off, drifting around the half back line to compile an impressive 11 intercept possessions as part of his 14 touches.
I’m not sure whether he was given licence to roam free, or just has impeccable judgment of the ball in flight, but Long found himself in the right place at the right time too often for it to be a happy coincidence.
I don’t want to dwell on this, as I am sure we’ll read a hundred articles in the next 48 hours about the elephant in the room, but of the things I will miss this season, the development of an exciting talent like Ben Long, in a new role, is one of the things I will miss most. It was a good news story waiting to happen.
It may still happen, but we’ll have a couple of months to wait for it to come to fruition.
THE LIFT OF JED ANDERSON
I hope this bloke gets the credit he deserves for his third quarter effort, because I reckon without him throwing himself in at the contest like a lunatic, North don’t actually win this game.
Anderson only knows one way of going about it – he puts his head down, bum up and goes as hard as he can for the footy, and if you’re not willing to match that intensity, you’ll lose the contest.
North were hard at it in the first half, but they lacked composure and often their hard work amounted to nothing, but they got the balance right in the third quarter, allowing Anderson to continue doing what he does – attacking the contest with abandon, and had the runners on the outside to capitalise.
His numbers will be overlooked, as they are not outstanding – 16 disposals and one clearance, but his work in and around the contest was first class when North needed it the most. They needed a lift in the third quarter, and that’s exactly what they got from Jed Anderson.
EARNING HIS SPOT
I really liked what I saw from Curtis Taylor in the second half. The kid lifted and was a key component in several pivotal plays for the Roos, showing that he was not afraid of the moment. He was able to keep the ball in at one stage in the last quarter when it looked certain to go out, farm a handball inboard and receive it back before delivering to Aaron hall for a goal that set North alight.
I think I wrote in the Marsh Series review the other week, that there is a bit of Connor Rozee about him. Maybe not as light on his feet, but the footy smarts, and good decision making is there, and he has a bright future at Arden Street.
You won’t see too many more spectacular falls in the game of footy than that of Josh Walker in this one, and the fact that he walked off the ground following it is nothing short of a miracle.
I’m going somewhere with this.
You see, we are all about the protection of the head and all that business (well, we’re about more than that at the moment) but in our game there will always be times when players crash into each other and crash to the turf as a result. As much as we can try to prevent head knocks and neck injuries and so on, it is incidents like this that are far scarier in terms of the potential damage to a player.
And really, there isn’t much we can do about it.
The fact that Walker got up and was able to sit on the bench and watch the remainder of the game was fantastic, but the incident itself is a reminder as to how dangerous the game can be, even when it is played in the best possible spirit. His absence was the most keenly felt of the three North suffered on the day.
SAFE FOOTY IN AN UNSAFE TIME
What happened to the Saints in the third quarter? Out by 27 points at the half, the Saints looked to have this contest well in hand, and whilst their daring run and carry, as well as their ability to hit targets were prevalent in the first half, they were devoid of them after half time.
Did the Saints go into their shell? Did they put the cue in the rack and play safe footy?
It seems as though they tried.
I would love to back through the footage (and given I‘ll now have the time, I might) and see how many times St Kilda players opted to take the safe kick instead of the gutsy one in the second half as opposed to the first.
When teams play safe, they often fall away, and I reckon that was the case in this one. As much as North barged through the door, St Kilda did leave it open for them to walk through. Courageous football slams the door shut.
NOT A GREAT SPECTACLE
Yeah, I want to write about the season being shut down, but instead, the standard of the game in the first half was very messy, and as a bit of rain fell to open the second term, things got a bit worse.
We can blame wet weather, or pressure, but there were simply a lot of missed targets by foot, and even seven or eight metre handballs that were landing at the feet of teammates, and increasing the pressure on them. This is not something happening in isolation – quite a few games have seen some horrible skills at points this round – Carlton and the Western Bulldogs leap to mind, but usually the other team whacks them as a result.
This time, both teams were pretty disappointing, but I guess North were more disappointing, as they were almost five goals down after the second quarter.
Thankfully, they lifted their game after the break.
DID NORTH WIN THIS, OR DID THE SAINTS LOSE IT?
A bit of both, really. St Kilda had the game in the bag. 27 points up at half time is a great base to build on, but they absolutely blew it with safe, uninspired footy in the third quarter.
But in order to be overrun, North had to do the overrunning, and with the Saints in reactive mode, North sensed the weakness and attacked.
HOW DID THE BIG ST KILDA RECRUITS FARE?
Let’s go one by one.
Brad Hill – Was deadly by foot in the first half, but as the Saints started playing safer, his supply dried up.
Dougal Howard – Very serviceable in the absence of Carlisle and Nathan Brown. Beat Ben Brown on the day, but we must take into account Brown was probably a little underdone.
Paddy Ryder – Looks great when he gets a run at it and still has wonderful hands. Was one of the few Saints who didn’t start fumbling as soon as the ball got wet.
Zak Jones – Good early, and was hard at it in the middle in the first half.22 touches and seven clearances is a nice first run.
Dan Butler- Threatened, and applied good pressure inside 50 but probably didn’t do enough. Six tackles inside 50 is a pretty solid return, however.
IS MAX KING WORTH THE HYPE?
Way too early to tell, but the North defenders were obviously pretty aware of him, giving him two shots at goal as a gift for doing not much.
As a first-gamer, North should have been making him earn his disposals rather than gifting them to him via free kicks. Maybe he is worth the hype? Two shots at goal from inside 20 metres due to being held would mean that North believed the hype, and believing it was more than a little costly.
WAS THIS THE SEASON JY SIMPKIN BROKE OUT?
Hey, it still could be, right?
Watching him today, there was a level of calm and collected play I hadn’t really noticed about him. When the heat was on in the last quarter, he was front and centre, making his possessions count. I know it is a very small sample size, but what we saw today was a glimpse into the player he could become, And I liked it.
I would have had Jared Polec in the good section, but his kicking early in the game was absolutely horrendous. After the first term, he had seven touches, which was great, but was running at just 28% efficiency… which is not, obviously.
And it’s not as though all his kicks were under pressure either. He just shanked a few, and it cost North each time. The goal he missed from 15 metres out… that was one of the worst misses of the entire seven-game season to date (small sample size, I know).
Aaron Hall added a bit for North, and though he can be quiet at times, his use of the footy can really hurt teams. If there were games next week, did he do enough to retain his spot? Questionable, but I would stick with him. If he gets his confidence back, his presence in that team adds hard run and finishing ability. Those two assets don’t grow on trees.
I am a huge Rowan Marshall fan, and really, I struggled with the Saints’ insistence that they needed another ruck to back him up (he is a workhorse!), but I can’t defend that missed shot in the dying minutes of the game. Sometimes the difference between winning and losing is so narrow that one thing can change the outcome. That was the one thing in this game.
So, that’s it – a good, come-from-behind win for the Roos, and a bit of a kick in the pants for the Saints. if we ever get this season restarted, that inspired second half just earned North a four point head start on a few teams they’ll need to leapfrog to play finals.