It can reasonably be assumed that the expectations both internally and from their fan base would be for Melbourne and St Kilda to feature in the 2020 finals, however entering round 14 and with each club coming off disappointing losses the earlier hope was still very much to be realised.
Melbourne would ultimately triumph by the narrow margin of three points after seven changes of the lead throughout the night to put the pressure on those clubs currently inhabiting the lower half of the eight, but many questions are still left unanswered for both the Saints and Dees.
Read on for extended analysis of five notable stories within the game:
Simon Goodwin and his selection panel made a statement after the uninspired performance against the Bulldogs last round, making a drastic six changes, with only one enforced through injury. Consistent Bayley Fritsch was also omitted for disciplinary reasons after oversleeping and missing training. We can all appreciate clubs wanting to uphold standards, but with players inside a hub and unable to get up to any mischief it seemed at least outwardly as a harsh penalty.
The players to find themselves back in the 22 acquitted themselves well, with skipper Max Gawn and youngster Trent Rivers amongst their sides best half dozen on the night. Sixteen assured disposals was the output from Rivers, along with four intercepts and six strong marks in a highly encouraging display from their highly rated 2019 draft pick. Mitch Brown on his Melbourne debut suffered something of a baptism of fire, copping several hard knocks during a typically courageous display. The fine set shot, two valuable tackles inside forward 50 and a couple of marks up towards the wing in the last may convince the coaches to give him another opportunity to shine in partnership with Weideman.
Oscar McDonald, Josh Wagner and Nathan Jones were less effective, each having moments they’d rather forget, Wagner with two fumbles in the first when he had space and time stifled Melbourne’s momentum during a period when they were well on top, McDonald was apprehensive at times allowing his opponents Marshall and Membrey clear access to the ball, while Jones was wasteful at times with his disposal, no more so than late in the second term after earning a free kick, chipped it straight to Jack Steele who duly converted.
The Saints were more circumspect with their changes, Ed Phillips with four first half score involvements was a good contributor with his overlapping run along with a nicely taken set shot goal in the second and a goal assist when he hit up Max King in the first. High priced recruit, Jake Carlisle found himself out of the side, nominally for match up reasons, but his height and sure marking would’ve been useful on the night as Melbourne capitalised on several occasions the Saints taller players unwillingness to defend the drop zone deep in defence.
TWO TEAMS ENTER, ONLY ONE CAN CLAIM VICTORY
With the two teams precariously poised entering this match just inside and just outside the eight respectively, the game in the red centre presented a genuine opportunity to consolidate their ambitions for the season. St Kilda came out stronger to begin, their approach of bringing the ball into the corridor at centre half-back then pushing wide along the wings before darting back inside 50 providing difficult to counter for the Dees, however both Tim Membrey and Marshall missed gilt-edged chances to put the score on the board.
Melbourne took their chances better, and Petracca was the first to strike landing a long bomb from 55m for the game’s first major. He bobbed up again shortly thereafter with a powerful contested mark over Nick Coffield and Ben Long after a Viney popped it in his direction. Once Jake Melksham was able to wrong foot his opponent and deliver exquisitely to Weideman the Dees had four straight and the Saints would be rueing their poor conversion.
Ratten would have been buoyed by his midfield’s hard edge in limiting the impact of the vaunted Melbourne midfielders. Viney and Brayshaw only returning one touch each in the first term in what were quiet games for them overall, while the tone was set for Oliver, who while prolific couldn’t find the space he had in recent weeks and was back to distributing primarily by hand where he is less dangerous.
Petracca, of course, was omni-present and while not getting his hand on the ball as often as we’ve become accustomed this season, was deadly up forward with an equal career-high four goals.
With St Kilda on top in the middle, Melbourne adjusted and credit to the coaching panel who worked to get their best ball users into the play. Steven May, Michael Hibberd who was excellent until an ankle injury just before three-quarter time, and Christian Salem often found themselves in space and were able to launch fast attacks forward which brought most of Melbourne’s goal scoring opportunities. There were also periods of maturity where they held the ball and chipped around cautiously that showed they are capable of different approaches to combat the opposition.
The Alice Springs ground presented unique challenges to the coaches with Traeger Park measuring 175m x 135m, making it one of the largest in the competition. Despite the extra room to move, neither side really were able to break the defensive structure of the other effectively, Melbourne’s across half back, and the Saints further afield across the midfield.
Ultimately it was missed opportunity for the Saints who had the best of the inside 50 count 46-30 and a dominant midfield led by Jack Steele. Steele was everywhere, and vied for best afield honours with May, like his team however he was just pipped, but more on the burgeoning Saints number 9 later. The Demons were more creative when it came to the forward half and their blossoming superstar’s four-goal contribution proved the difference in the end.
MATCHUPS THAT MATTERED
Petracca vs Steele
While not directly matched up, these two held the fortunes of their club in their hands throughout the night. While Steele was outstanding at setting up attacks and driving the ball forward – claiming 15 contested possessions as he went, he was let down by a wasteful forward line.
Petracca took matters into his own hands, and showed that even when he is not compiling big possession numbers he can still be a match-winner. Playing forward for approximately 50% of the game, he looked dangerous at every turn, recording a game-high six score involvements and his ultimate match-winner was a thing of beauty. Isolated in a three on 1 forward entry, he seemingly took the mark in the front position, the call was play on and as he was tackled was able to get enough boot on the ball to propel in the direction of the goal. A fortunate bounce, or possibly a shooter’s roll saw the Sherrin end up at the goal line with Dougal Howard in desperate pursuit. Any debate about what happened from there can be left up to others, but the goal umpire in the best position called it a goal, and so the decision and result stood.
May vs King
The impressive Max King was given a football lesson by the surging Steven May. After a stuttering start to his Melbourne career, the key backman has struck an outstanding vein of form and would be in the AA conversation based on his last six weeks. An imperious nine marks, six of which were intercepted with a further two contested showcased his aerial supremacy, and 22 disposals at just shy of 80% proved his best afield credentials. King kicked the Saints first from a neat mark on the lead but found space to jump crowded with Gawn often taking up space in a true team effort to minimise the budding star’s impact.
Hibberd vs Sinclair
These two players gave continual drive to their respective sides from half-back throughout the night, both also being recognised in the best 5 players on the ground.
Hibberd was typically strong in the contest claiming six marks and driving the ball forward 16 times most notably when he took possession after a composed Jake Lever clearance and pinpointed a streaking Angus Brayshaw who set up Weideman to run on and goal in the third.
Jack Sinclair was similarly conspicuous but in a less combative manner than Hibberd. 14 quality touches at 93% efficiency resulting in 384m gain for his team, a game-leading seven inside 50s, team-high five score involvements and a goal assist to Paddy Ryder was the end result of a very good night for the man who wears Robert Harvey’s revered jumper number.
Langdon vs Hill
Hill was back to near his best but faced stiff opposition from his former Fremantle teammate Langdon on the outer wing, particularly in the first half. The two speedsters racked up an impressive 12.5km each during the game to literally blow away everyone else on the field, finishing second and third on the metres gained tally.
Langdon finished with 22 touches, eight marks and three tackles in one of his best performances for his new club, but questions will still surround his disposal which gradually eroded in quality as the game progressed.
The battle for ruck ascendency has been one of the more engrossing subplots of the 2020 season, and as highlighted on Thursday night a strategy consisting of two big capable players taking on one can often result in a win by numbers scenario. This match was set up along similar lines with multi-AA, the returning Melbourne Captain Max Gawn facing down the experienced Paddy Ryder and emerging Rowan Marshall.
From early in the game it was apparent the Dees had missed Gawn’s canny game sense and workrate where he cut off opposition leads in the defensive 50 and then hurt the Saints by drifting forward to take a mark over a flailing Seb Ross with Marshall nowhere in sight. The ensuing goal gave him a big advantage over his nominal two-headed opponent, and while he wasn’t racking up copious stats, his presence in particular upset one of the Saints best hopes for attack with King unable to use his marking prowess while Max with in the area.
A late goal to Marshall courtesy of a lovely tap by Ryder and long kick by Sinclair gave the Saints the momentum into half time, and their rucks began to neutralise Gawn’s impact around the contests. Max fought back admirably in the all-important last though to take the points. His 30 hit outs, 15 disposals, six intercepts and four clearances enough to see off Ryder (17 hit outs, six disposals and 1 goal) and Marshall (11 hit outs, 13 disposals and a goal) in a very welcome return to the side for the run home.
WHERE TO FROM HERE?
With the result far from comprehensive, both clubs will take positives and negatives from this match. Both coaches, however, would be concerned with the apparent lack of dare in the final stanza, with both clubs seemingly unwilling to take that risk that might have won them the game, preferring to move the ball backwards and down the line in what was a disappointing element to an entertaining game.
Melbourne now sit inside the eight with a strong percentage advantage on their closest rivals, with matches to come against the Swans, Dockers, Giants and Bombers to come they would be confident of claiming the likely three victories required to book their place in the finals. There is still a nagging doubt that despite the structural building blocks being in place, stars across the ground and a more robust game plan that a consistent output will still be elusive when the whips are cracking. A return to finals, however, will be a good building block for next year.
St Kilda meanwhile drop to sixth and are in danger of losing touch with the top five, from where the eventual premier will probably be crowned. A bye next round, followed by matches against the Hawks, Eagles and Giants could leave the improving Saints fighting with the Giants in round 18 for a spot ion the eight. The continued emergence of Steele, Marshall coupled with the development of Coffield and Sinclair will see the Saints well poised for future success as the import strategy of last years trade period further gels across another pre-season.
And lastly, five quick ones symbolising the intercept marking of Steven May:
Four weeks ago, a name appeared almost atop the ALFCA Best Player Leaderboard and looked slightly out of place amongst Brownlow fancies Lachie Neale, Christian Petracca and Travis Boak. The longer the season goes though, the more this player is confirming that perhaps the coaches do know what they are talking about. Former Giant, Jack Steele is becoming elite and led some to discuss amongst the social channels last night if he is the best ex-GWS player in the league right now. Based on this season’s performance and his growing leadership capabilities it would be hard to argue.
While the sixteen-minute quarters make it hard to assess averages across seasons, what is confirmed is that Steele is playing a more important role in driving the Saints forward as career highs in clearances and inside 50s attest. Last night he was again enormous in the contested situations, often matched against renowned beasts Oliver, Petracca and Viney he collected a game high eight clearances and worked hard with the ball as well chiming in with a game high 459m gained.
Three-time premiership player at Hawthorn and Best & Fairest winner at Fremantle are pretty lofty credentials that Hill brought with him to St Kilda prior to this season, however he has probably not quite lived up to that billing yet. There may just be something in the observation that the exceptional distance runners are compromised in the shorter game format of 2020, and with Brad Hill holding 16 of the 19 best ever recorded total sprints in a match he is a prime candidate to be adversely affected.
A game leading twenty-seven possessions last night (and second best 440m gained), including a staggering eleven in the last when most players were unwilling to take the game on almost won his side the match. A typically impressive 82% disposal efficiency should have set up more opportunities, but the large ground and the lack of drive from the back half saw Hill required further up the field than the coach would ideally like.
Talking (over the) footy
I’m not sure if the boss Mongrel hates me, or if it’s just dumb luck that I keep ending up with Saturday night games – featuring the Channel 7 (B) team. Now for anyone unlucky enough to have to experience their (A) team consisting of the interminable Brian Taylor, sadly declining Bruce McAvaney, and the antithesis of a special commentator Wayne Carey, would run screaming from James Brayshaw and his impromptu lessons on modern vernacular and the absurd Luke Darcy who constantly sounds like he’s swallowed a book of adjectives. The lowlight for the evening in an extremely fierce contest was trying to shoehorn a Kysaiah Pickett highlight into every single play, despite an extremely modest return from the exciting youngster. Just call the play as you see it please, we don’t need you to create the narrative, this isn’t scripted and the players are the stars, you are there merely to call what you see, and provide injury updates, please and thank you.
Saints back in red, black & yellow
The St Kilda players wore red, yellow and black socks in solidary recognition of their indigenous brothers and sisters across Australia. As an unrelated aside, the St Kilda FC briefly wore red, yellow and black striped guernseys between 1915 and 1922, which contrary to popular opinion was not changed to distance themselves from the current German flag during the fallout of World War 1, but to differentiate themselves from the red, white and black flag of the German Empire at that time.
Stats, stats, stats:
- Despite a vaunted centre square rotation featuring Petracca, Clayton Oliver, Jack Viney and Max Gawn the Demons were trounced in clearances from this part of the ground 2-11 on the night. Usually a strength Melbourne were well down on their season average of 9.3.
- Both sides were well down on the tackle count until the final term, but interestingly Melbourne recorded three tackles inside forward 50 in the first and last quarters, with the Saints countering with 3 apiece in the second and third terms to finish tied at 6-6.
- St Kilda recorded nine bounces to Melbourne’s zero, this was reflected in the composition of the teams with line breakers such as Brad Hill (4) and Dan Butler (1) versus the Melbourne back half Hibberd, May, Salem who like to move the ball by foot.
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