Monday night football returned to the AFL, with the struggling Adelaide Crows finally coming back to South Australia to take on the resurgent St Kilda in front of 25,000 fans. Winless from six starts, the Crows were looking forward to putting the hub behind them and kick-starting a rebuilding campaign. St. Kilda, a team that sat middle of the pack after snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, needed a calming win to solidify themselves a finals ready outfit.

A game that ebbed and flowed all night, both teams had periods of dominance but only one made it count on the scoreboard when it mattered, and although this was the best game the Crows had produced all year, ultimately the Saints were too strong.After withstanding all the pressure Adelaide could muster, they held firm to record their first victory at Adelaide Oval. Here is the Mongrel’s review of St Kilda’s 23-point triumph over the Crows.

 

THE BACK STORY

St Kilda has always been a team that has disappointed its fan base for the entirety of its existence. One premiership from 123 years, and an astonishing 27 wooden spoons, more than double the next worst, the Saints it seems have been in a consistent merry-go-round with nothing to show for it. After the semi-successful Ross Lyon era, both Scott Watters and Alan Richardson tried and failed to rebuild a list capable of challenging for a premiership.

Enter Brett Ratten. Through some shrewd off season recruiting, the Saints have gone all in. Paddy Ryder, Zak Jones, Dougal Howard, Brad Hill and Dan Butler all walked into Moorabbin, and finally Saints fans could get a glimpse of where this proud club was headed. The season started poorly; a loss that in all honestly the Saints inflicted on themselves after leading by as much as 31 points over North Melbourne. After the COVID break, St Kilda steered the ship back on course, and found itself 3-3 heading into round 7. Looking at their season, the Saints could be sitting 5-1, and only have themselves to blame after throwing away victories against the Kangaroos and Dockers, the latter of which was their most recent showing.

Adelaide, on the other hand are in all sorts of hurt. Languishing at the bottom of the table, the fall from grace for this great club has been startling in its abruptness. On paper, this looks a team that could challenge for finals, based on the number of Grand Final players still on the list. On field it has been a shambles, and off field it has been even worse, with criticism coming thick and fast on an array of topics from the nightmare pre-season camp of 2018, to the recruitment of Bryce Gibbs and exodus that followed it, and even from past champions like Andrew McLeod, whose comments echoed through South Australia’s media and threatened to take down everyone in the front office.

Matthew Nicks has inherited a broken list and an even more broken football club that will need solid seasons of rebuilding before it can even think about being a challenger.

 

THE GAME

The first quarter started brilliantly for the Saints, with Mongrel All-Australian Team member Dan Butler nailing a goal within the first minute to kick-start St Kilda’s evening. Pressure was immense from both sides, and due to the slippery weather, control of the football hard to come by. St Kilda were the better team of the quarter, but Adelaide’s defensive work made it difficult for the Saints to gain the scoreboard ascendancy they deserved. The Crows started as well as they have all year despite only kicking one goal, and it became clear that finally being at home and front of their own fans was lifting Matthew Nicks’ men. Contested football was still an issue however, and Zak Jones in particular carved up the Crows to continually drive the Saints into attack. For the rest of the game St Kilda would be a man down, with friendly fire knocking Josh Battle’s head into next week and he failed a concussion test that ruled him out.

After quarter time, the Saints took control. Kicking away to take a 20-point advantage into the main break, St Kilda’s ball movement was too much for the Crows to overcome. Adelaide had more of the ball in the second term, but moved too slowly from half back and they could not break through St Kilda’s team defence. Conversely, when the Saints attacked from half back, they moved the ball with speed, which cut through the Crows despite their best efforts.

Interestingly, the stats were surprisingly even up to half time, but the two teams were clearly attacking with different plans, and the Saints made the most of their opportunities created from superior ball use as well as quicker forays forward. The Saints kicked away to take a handy 20-point advantage into the main break, but Crows supporters would be relatively happy with their team’s output in the first half, and some wayward shots for goal would’ve seen them closer at half time.

Matthew Nicks instructed his charges to take the game on in the second half, and the Crows responded with a dominant third term. However poor goal kicking cost them, as Adelaide kicked four behinds from ten inside 50’s, only for the Saints through Butler to respond against the run of play.

Around the ground the Crows were the better team, and their pressure after quarter time lifted to match the Saints, but for all their dominance, the Crows forward entries gave their forwards nothing to work with, and St Kilda’s defenders ate up every intercept mark. Putting that aside, this was the best the Crows had played all year, and it led by their younger brigade, who relished the contest and pressured the Saints into error. For the third straight term it was a shot at goal after the siren, and this time a goal from Shane McAdam that gave Adelaide a sniff heading into the last quarter.

St Kilda needed a steadying goal to start the last term, and after another centre clearance win, they got exactly that through Dean Kent. The Crows weren’t done with yet however, and dominated the next passage to put some scoreboard pressure back on the Saints. Most pleasingly for Crows supporters was that the Adelaide surge was led by Taylor Walker, who finally took a game by the scruff of the neck and showed the world what he is still capable of. Midway through the quarter, Adelaide had reduced the margin back under ten points, and had all the momentum on their side. The Saints kept pushing forward, but Adelaide’s defence held strong, and was able to cut off two forward thrusts and rush behinds to maintain possession and deny St Kilda a much needed goal. Only through a dropped Brodie Smith mark and a quick kick forward were the Saints able to kick away, and three goals in five minutes were enough to finally kill the Crows off for good.

 

THE PLAYERS OF THE MATCH

Despite the even stats, and the showing of the Crows in 2020, it was clear that the best men on the ground were wearing red, white and black. Starting from the winners’ backline, and intercept marking was the feature from numerous Saint defenders. Led by Nick Coffield and Dougal Howard, St Kilda’s defence never let up, and took control from the first bounce. Coffield and Howard both took a team high seven marks, and Howard in particular had an enthralling battle with Taylor Walker. Coffield was his team’s main rebounder, and his kicking skills (17 disposals at 88% efficiency, including 13 kicks) ensured that the Saints exited defensive 50 smoothly.

Another player worthy of recognition in St Kilda’s defence is young gun Ben Paton. Opposed to Tyson Stengle, Paton always looked comfortable with ball in hand, and his pressure made life hard for Adelaide’s small forwards. Having said that, the tandem of Stengle and Shane McAdam deserve praise for their consistency in forward pressure in making sure the ball stayed inside forward 50 once it went to ground. For the tall timber, this was the return of the Big Texan, and perhaps for the first time in 2020, Walker threw his weight around in his battle with Howard and Jake Carlisle. Kicking three goals, and missing two more, Walker was the Crows best forward, and a big reason why they came so close in the last quarter.

In the middle, and it was contested ball that won the night for the Saints, and it was led by Jack Steele and Zak Jones. Steele was the clear best on ground, and an astonishing 20 of his 26 possessions were contested. Also playing a semi-tagging role, Steele restricted Brad Crouch to just 15 disposals and no impact through the Crows midfield.

Zak Jones too played a vital contested role, and at quarter time had already amassed seven contested possessions. Nicks sent a tag to Jones and restricted his influence after half time, and it worked somewhat, but Jones could hold his head high that he’d done his bit for St Kilda’s victory.

Taking on Rowan Marshall and Paddy Ryder, Crow Reilly O’Brien did his best to give his midfielders first use of the ball, and while he came out on par with the St Kilda duo, his work around the ground was much better, and all four of O’Brien’s marks were contested. The standout midfielders for the Crows were Ben Keays and Matt Crouch. Keays was the better of the two, as he executed both of his roles outstandingly. Playing alongside Zak Jones, Keays restricted Jones after half time and was his team’s best player going forward, his 23 disposals only bettered by Crouch. Keays amassed seven clearances, four inside 50’s and four score involvements.

The younger Crouch didn’t enjoy his usual brilliance, but his work with ball in hand was still excellent despite this. Collecting 26 disposals, Crouch was the main player through the wings when the Crows attacked from half back.

Forward of the ball for St Kilda, and it was a complete team effort to get a score on the board, and no one player completely dominated. Dan Butler was perhaps the best forward, kicking three goals to place him second in the Coleman Medal race. Despite only registering 12 touches, Butler’s work without ball in hand would please Ratten the most, as his pressure on Adelaide’s defenders made it difficult for the Crows to exit their back 50 with any speed.

Max King often threatened, and showed patches of brilliance, but he was well held by Daniel Talia in an enthralling one-on-one duel. Jade Gresham was also lively, and he was directly involved in eight of St Kilda’s scores. He also amassed seven clearances, five tackles and four inside 50’s. Counting against Gresham is his disposal efficiency, only going at 38% with ball in hand, which is disappointing at this level. Stand in captain Tom Doedee was the Crows best defender, his intercepting work was a highlight throughout the contest.

 

THE NERVOUS MEN

For a team that remains winless, and another that has dropped games it should’ve won, remarkably this was an exciting contest that both teams could win in the last quarter. Normally we can single out those that simply didn’t show enough and would like to atone, and certainly there were players out the tonight that fit that bill, but in reality there were relatively few performances that could be judged as below average.

Starting on the losing side, and it seems that Fischer McAsey is still a little out of his depth despite being shifted forward. Competing well and giving everything he had, McAsey only touched the ball five times, and his only shot for goal was a bad miss. Once Darcy Fogarty comes back into the team, McAsey should be switched back to defence, not because he has been better back there, but more that fellow defender Kyle Hartigan hasn’t been much better, and if McAsey is out of the side, his development may stall due to Adelaide’s omission from the SANFL.

As we mentioned earlier, Brad Crouch was down on his usual output thanks to a tag from Jack Steele, and had he displayed his usual brilliance, perhaps the result may have slightly different. Despite playing in middle for the majority of the contest, Chayce Jones had no impact on the game, and his six possessions were the second least for his team. He did manage three inside 50’s, but at no point did he present any threat to St Kilda’s defenders.

To the victors go the spoils and it seems unfair to heap criticism on any player from a complete team display. Bradley Hill is the main Saint that is down on his capabilities. For what the Saints gave up to get him to Moorabbin, and for the money he is being paid, Hill’s game and indeed his season could only be described as average at best. Gathering just 12 touches, Hill’s usual wing brilliance has derserted him, and he doesn’t have the contested game to be any threat underneath the packs.

Tim Membrey too would’ve liked to get into the game a little more, and his stat line of seven disposals, two kicks, five handballs and a single goal is well down on what he is capable of. Both Rowan Marshall and Paddy Ryder also need to work on their craft, as it seems they are ineffective when they are in the same team, and both don’t have enough strengths when resting forward to be a consistent threat.

 

It was another day and another loss for the rebuilding Crows, but back in Adelaide and in front of its own fans, this was the best this group had played under Matthew Nicks. For St Kilda, they simply did what they had to do and accounted for a lesser team, banked the four points and secured a place in the finals for now. There are certainly aspects of the game that Ratten and his team will need to fix, and despite the victory, the Saints look a step below the best teams in the competition.

For Adelaide, it was another step towards its first ever number one draft pick, and it was the chance to show their fans small glimpses of its own bright future. But everyone associated with this club would know by now that this will be a long hard road back to the Promised Land, and much more pain will follow. But we need to focus on the winners, a team that if not for its own bullets, would be sitting 6-1 and be comfortably inside the top four. Sitting sixth, the Saints are nestled in with six other teams on 16 points, and will need to play with more consistency if it is to challenge the top sides. The pieces are all there, the task now is finding out how everyone fits together.