In an era where almost every game has a theme or an agenda, it’s heartwarming to play a game in memory of a great man. And not only play it in his memory, but create awareness of the often taboo topic of men’s mental health. It was a great initiative by all those involved to incorporate former Saint and media funnyman Danny ‘Spud’ Frawley’s struggles with mental health, and subsequent loss of life.

Both teams stood arm in arm surrounding the centre circle whilst former players and friends of Spud; Garry Lyon and Stewie Loewe spoke to the players, coaches and fans of the man that Frawley was and what we can do as a collective to check in on our mates. Even Plugger Lockett made the trip down to be part of Spud’s game.

What a great sentiment that is – take two minutes of your day to check on a mate. You may just save a life.

And so, it was a heavily anticipated game between Melbourne and St Kilda. Two teams that often find their seasons winding up in the same precarious position. They’ve both drafted and recruited heavily in recent years for a finals push, but haven’t quite managed to capitalise on it yet. The Dees were thereabouts in 2018 and the Saints had a good season in 2020, but a Grand Final has eluded them both.

The last time these two teams met was a tight contest in the heat of Alice Springs where we saw the Saints fall agonizingly short to the tune of three points.

A frenetic first quarter saw quick ball movement, lightning-quick transition, hard tackling, big marking and plenty of Saturday night live action! A goal apiece early to Viney and Membrey set the tone, only for Melbourne to kick the next two and really begin to stamp their authority on a dominant quarter. Enter two late goals to the Saints and we had a two-point lead to Melbourne at the first break.

Carrying their late momentum from the first quarter into the second, the Saints leapt off the blocks and dominated the clearances, adding three goals to their tally to make it the last five of the game and stretching a lead out to 16 points. STOP! Momentum time. The Dee’s transitioning the ball from their defense with aplomb lead to three goals in five minutes, seeing them carry a four point lead into the long break.

To carry on the theme of momentum shifts the Demons kicked the first two of the third quarter to make it five on the trot once again to build on their lead. Two goals in a row to Jack Steele narrowed the margin until and a late goal to Bailey Fritsch gave Melbourne a 15-point lead at three-quarter time.

Goals to Tom McDonald and Kysaiah Pickett in the opening minutes of the fourth term stretched Melbourne’s lead out to 29 points. An exchange of five behinds was brought to a halt by back-to-back St. Kilda goals reducing the margin to 18 points. A goal to each team followed by missed late opportunities to the Saints lead to a final score of Melbourne 12-19-91 defeating St. Kilda 11-7-73.

This is the game as I saw it.

 

THE CHRISTIAN AND CLARRY SHOW

Let’s just rattle the figures off now before I get started.

Clayton Oliver and Christian Petracca combined tonight for 67 disposals with half of those being contested, 14 marks, 11 tackles, 17 clearances, 13 inside 50s, 16 score involvements, and almost 1,200 metres gained.

They were the driving force that saw Melbourne manage to wrestle back the lead and build on it, then hold off the Saints press in the end. The only real knock on Petracca tonight was his wayward compass and rushed kicks towards goal, scoring 0.3 until he switched to a more team-oriented mindset by the latter half of the game. That aside, he and Oliver put on an absolute clinic.

When the game was in the balance it was the Demons’ dominance in the centre and their drive from their backline that got them over the line. Oliver had no trouble winning and gathering his own ball all over the ground. Numerous times he was either the first in the chain or a couple of links within it, with Melbourne seemingly transitioning the ball from their backline to their forward line with ease. Whether they chipped it and utilised the marking target or threw caution into the wind and ran the gauntlet with their legspeed, time and time again they pulled off quick turnarounds and coast-to-coast scores out of their backline – a part of their game that they severely lacked last year as highlighted by their coach Simon Goodwin.

Although the calls for Petracca to be sat alongside Dustin Martin may be slightly premature, at 25 years of age he has all the makings and characteristics of a player that can be elite for years to come. He has the big, strong body at the contest, he has the vice grip hands in the air, he has the leg speed and the foot skill to nail passes inside 50. The more of a run he gets from the midfield, the better a player he will become and the better a team Melbourne will be.

 

BLOCK AND TACKLE

How many times have you heard “BAAALLLLLLLLLLLL!!!” screamed at a footy game, only to be followed by “BOOOOOOOOOOOOO”?

How many times have you screamed “BAAALLLLLLLLLLLL!!!” at a footy game, only to follow it with “BOOOOOOOOOOOOO” when the decision doesn’t go your team’s way?

Clearly this season the umpires have been given an emphasis on holding the ball and incorrect disposal calls. It was strange last round, because they attempted to implement a stricter approach to the interpretation of holding the ball last season and we saw some of the worst free kicks paid in the history of our game. However having backed it up this round with the same consistency as round one, it’s a pleasure to see the same frees being paid from one week to the next, without a drastic change to the interpretation of the rules.

Of course, if you’re a Brisbane supporter I’m sure you disagree with me, and rightfully so after last night. However that incident aside, as a collective whole the interpretation has been a vast improvement on last year’s glaring inconsistencies.

 

PICKETT FENCING

As the Demons were surging late into the second quarter, a long bomb inside 50 from James Jordon found its way through immense traffic into the hands of young Kysaiah Pickett. He managed to weave his way through four separate Saints players, ducked through a tackle, ran around to the left and snapped a brilliant goal.

He followed this effort up with a scintillating run into the Dees’ forward line in the third quarter, taking running bounces and kicking from 50 to narrowly miss to the right. Minutes later he would back this up again by gathering the ball at blistering pace through the congestion and narrowly missing another shot on goal.

Not to be outdone by his own efforts, he no sooner found his way back into the forward line and was on the end of a mark and having a set shot from just outside 50. He peeled around with a kick that almost made the journey, kept in play by the Saints defenders. A hot potato of a ball found its way back to Pickett’s hands who almost evaded another few tackles for another run into goal with a follow up tackle.

An attempted screamer that was almost held onto was the cherry on top of his third-quarter cake. It didn’t take him long in the fourth quarter to gather the ball from a turnover inside his forward 50, pirouette and turn onto his right and snap his second goal from 40 metres out. This kid is an excitement machine!

There are a selection of players who need only a handful of possessions, a couple of marks and tackles to accompany a goal or two, but have this uncanny knack of being able to turn a game on its head in a short burst of skill. Demons fans must be absolutely chomping at the bit to see the potential fulfilled from the young man whose wrecking ball of an uncle finished his career at the same club 15 years ago.

 

A PAIR OF JACKS

There weren’t a lot of highlights to pull from St. Kilda’s game tonight. A few individual performances and the team’s composure to regain the lead in the first half were enough to get tongues wagging early. One thing that stood out to me throughout the game was the sheer determination of two players, both named Jack. Jack Billings and Jack Steele tried and tried and tried until the final siren.

Steele kicked three goals as a midfielder, with two coming back to back in the third quarter when the game was starting to become a close contest again, and Billings was playing almost a lone hand at times in the Saints back half, clunking 13 marks for the game, as well as being one of the only counter-punches to a Demons forward onslaught.

 

HAVE THEY FINALLY DONE IT?

Every season the AFL in their infinite wisdom find new ways to change our game; be it last-minute changes to team structures, new rules, different interpretations or whatever else they decide will “improve” our game. I use the word “improve” sarcastically and leave it to the interpretation of you, the reader, as to whether you agree with them or not.

However, will this season be the one to actually implement a positive change across the board? Have they finally created the high-scoring, free-flowing, television-friendly monster that they’ve been chasing for years? I hate the cliché, but only time will tell. So far this year scores are up on previous years (excluding 2020 due to shorter games), the amount of scoring chains and transitional play has increased and we are witnessing a shift towards a faster-paced brand of football.

Let’s hope it lasts because it makes for bloody good watching.

 

TO GET REAL GAWN

It all starts in the ruck. That snap at goal, that run down the wing, the high flying mark, and run down tackle – they all started earlier in the game with a ball up contested by two big men.

The top ruckman mantle has been hotly contested in a largely two horse race for the past few seasons. Those two horses being Collingwood’s Brodie Grundy and Melbourne’s own Max Gawn. Tonight big Maxy showed he is a cut above most with a dominant display all around the ground.

He rounded the game out with a clean 40 hitouts, of which 14 were to the direct advantage of his midfielders. 17 disposals, five marks and three clearances of his own equaled an advantage to his teammates that would be the envy of most midfields in the competition.

The Dees naming as captain raised a few eyebrows, however, he more than showcased his leadership credentials tonight. Along with Melbourne’s own bottle of fine aging wine from the Jones Vinyard, Gawn and Nathan Jones were highlighted time and time again not only directing other players on the ground, but sticking their own necks out for the advantage of their team at the contest.

It’s service like that, provided by Gawn that must have the Melbourne midfield buoyed, knowing that they have an advantage over most by a ruckman who can tap and place a ball, but also knows how to read what’s ahead of him and thump the ball clear of the opponent’s goal just to gain territory.

If you ask the older blokes like Don Scott, the science and foresight that are required in the role of the ruckman make them the most complex and underappreciated players in our game. But even his generation would have to tip their hats to their modern-day counterparts seeing so many games won and lost at the centre bounce. At only 29 years of age Max Gawn still has plenty left in the tank to maintain the moniker as one of, if not the premier ruckman in the competition.

 

SHOTS APLENTY

Melbourne looked dangerous up forward. At times it was almost a curse of who to kick to, such was their freedom to roam unchecked in their own forward line. It was not how often they got the ball forward, but how often they scored from those inside 50s.

Melbourne nailed a score 39 times from their 54 inside 50s, whilst St. Kilda only managed to score 39 times from their own 53 inside 50s. That forward press and ability to inflict a score so regularly was a massive nail in the Saints’  coffin tonight. Even with players like Bailey Fritsch scoring 1.3, Tom McDonald scoring 2.3, Kysaiah Pickett scoring 2.2 with a couple either out on the full or not making the journey, and Christian Petracca scoring three behinds and a couple of no-scores, Melbourne always looked dangerous up forward and always threatened to blow the game apart.

Their own inaccuracy was the difference between a three-goal win and a potential eight-goal win. Regardless, seeing the Demons in full flight with a vast array of scorers (12 goals from nine individual kickers) is a huge step up from their low-scoring woes of last season.

Now, here are a few notes I jotted down throughout the course of the game.

– Although he finished the game quietly, Jack Viney was in everything early. He kicked two goals for only the third time in his career and his signature hard tackling and head over the ball at the contest were evident early.

– Discipline was lacking from the Saints tonight. Ben Long couldn’t manage a single tackle for the night, the one attempt he made was unnecessary and paid high which almost gifted the Demons a goal when St. Kilda were just starting to claw back in the fourth quarter.

– Loved the battles of Zak Jones and Christian Petracca. Two blokes that go as hard as your Mother-in-law’s head, neither wanting to give an inch. Some really tough clashes, hard tackles and good quality contested footy.

– Brad Hill struggled. When the Saints were struggling, often was off the back of a turnover or missed tackle or failed attempt from Hill. They’ll be looking for a lift out of their star recruit because when he’s on, he’s a fine weapon in their arsenal of pace.

– Christian Salem flew under the radar a bit tonight, responsible for keeping Dan Butler quiet. He went in, did his job, did it well without too much flashiness or applause. Solid contribution.

– St. Kilda’s turnovers were atrocious at times. They almost always lead them to be exposed on the overlap. You can forgive an error under pressure, but when you try and get too cute with your kick and not only disadvantage your teammate, but get scored against directly from your kick, it’s time to kick smarter.

– I know I brushed on it at the start, but how good was the Time 2 Talk initiative in memory of Spud Frawley? If you felt like donating you can follow this link: https://au.movember.com/p/stkilda/donate/details?memberId=14532813&donationAmount=50#amount
or if you or someone you know is struggling or in need of help, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or MensLine Australia on 1300 78 99 78.

– How good were Adam Tomlinson and Ed Langdon? Almost unbeatable in the air, and their fast rebound was the catalyst for Melbourne’s quick transitions from defence.

– Saint’s needed more from their small forwards. Dan Butler, Jack Higgins and Jack Lonie just didn’t do enough. They lacked that spark up forward when the game was hot and contested.

– In case you missed it, Ed Sheeran, Shane Warne and Eric Bana were all in attendance tonight. I didn’t really give a shit, but they felt it necessary to remind us and tell us who accompanied them.

Who’s next?

St. Kilda will meet Essendon next Saturday at Marvel Stadium where they’ll enter as favourites and leave as victors.

Melbourne have got GWS on Sunday afternoon over at Manuka Oval.

 

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